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Crime Lady: Staying Pesky in the Sunshine
Q&A with Mandy Matney, Author of BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS
A few months ago, my friend Carolyn Murnick, author of the true crime memoir The Hot One (2017) and a former editor at New York Magazine, texted me a question: what did I think about the title Blood On Their Hands? It was for a book she was co-writing with a journalist based in the South who was the proprietor of a popular true crime podcast.
“You’re working with Mandy Matney!” Matney, of course, is a South Carolina-based journalist whose podcast on the Murdaugh Murders, and the twisted web of lies, corruption, and multiple homicides involving a single family, became the standard from which all coverage of this story — and there was so much of it — deviated from. I followed the case but I also knew I didn’t have to cover it because Matney, like Robert Kolker on the Gilgo Beach killings, owned the story.
Murnick was, indeed, working with Matney. I liked the title. And when the book finally made its way to my e-reader, I was struck by how much I liked it too — in large part because it’s not so much about the Murdaughs (though they are a prominent part of the narrative) but about Matney’s struggle to assert herself as a journalist and overcome resistance, sexism, and other barriers to achieve true autonomy.
Blood on Their Hands: Murder, Corruption and the Fall of the Murdaugh Dynasty was published earlier this week. Matney answered a few of my questions by email, and the Q&A is presented here, edited and condensed for clarity.
The Crime Lady: I've been describing Blood On Their Hands as "She Said for the Lowcountry" and I wondered if a) that's how you see the book and b) if that's what you intended to write from the getgo?
Mandy Matney: Thank you so much for that comparison as we were channeling She Said vibes as we started the writing process. I'm a huge admirer of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's investigations, and I also was inspired by Julie K. Brown's Perversion of Justice on [Jeffrey] Epstein.
It was important to me to write a book that might inspire young journalists and others deciding how to do the right thing; I wanted to write the book that I wished was out there years ago when I started out after journalism school. It evoked feminine empowerment elements, journalism elements of not being able to say Alex [Murdaugh] did it until found guilty, and podcast elements because I would start every episode with "I DONT KNOW..."And a bit of a nod to how I came to know all the horrible people out there on the internet and learning how to cope. I believe the title strikes deep at the core of the issues, namely, that enabling behavior led to multiple deaths throughout the lowcountry with only a few of many being held to account.
TCL: How did your collaboration with Carolyn Murnick come about, and how did that work on a day-to-day level?
MM: I am incredibly grateful that fate and UTA connected Carolyn to this immensely personal project. I knew she had published a successful book before we met initially, and after reading The Hot One, I knew that we'd connect on how to craft a narrative that considers victims and how they are portrayed. We had another collaborator at the beginning of this book journey, but it wasn't the right fit. And that's kind of what Blood on Their Hands is about — finding the right fit so you can flourish.
(Carolyn Murnick. Photo credit: Maria Karas)
Before Carolyn came on board, the vision for the book was headed in a less personal direction, but we clicked on exactly where the book needed to go with this new partnership. Carolyn and I met weekly on Zoom, I shared audio and video evidence, and of course the podcasts. But Carolyn's knack for pulling out the details that mattered is what really makes Blood on Their Hands not just a true crime book, but a memoir that strikes at the heart of what challenged me, what I hope inspires journalists, and what in the best-case changes institutions that continue to stain our antiquated justice and media systems.
TCL: I was struck by the pervasiveness of the sexism that you faced throughout, while reporting out the Murdaugh story (in all of its complexities) and in some ways more infuriatingly, at the office, when the stories you and Liz Farrell wrote were repeatedly ignored and devalued by your boss, despite the clear traffic and attention it was garnering for the newspaper. Looking back on it now, are you angrier than at the time, or has that abated because of how you were able to strike out on your own and essentially, be your own boss now?
MM: I am still infuriated by what I thought I was supposed to just endure - though I've experienced considerable growth since I started my career 10 years ago. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but my evolution as a writer, as a journalist, as a professional woman was for the longest time driven by what people would allow me to do. I knew that I didn't want to write hugely popular, though fluffy, pieces on sharks or alligators or other similar stories - but that's what my male bosses thought I was good enough to do... fluff.
I write in Blood On Their Hands that as the boat crash story was getting deeper and more visceral with tangled webs that I knew were more important, I was told to "catch up" more "seasoned" reporters, i.e. men. When I knew there was more to Stephen Smith's unsolved death, I was told that it wasn't my place to ask questions. After receiving international recognition and my platform became bigger than my employer's, I was met with jealously and vitriol - again because they thought I wasn't good enough, or man enough for the responsibilities I was carrying. Sexism and the way men treat women inside and outside of the workplace is an essential character in the book.
The good news is that there is a two-way street on that subject as we learned from the Murdaugh Murders Podcast (which is now called True Sunlight.) From sources (and now co-host on Cup of Justice, our other podcast) like Eric Bland and lawyer-legislator Justin Bamberg, to law enforcement officers close to the case, to my sweet and entirely supportive husband David - there are men highlighted throughout the chapters that get it, see it and want to change it. And that's what matters.
TCL: Blood On Their Hands really gets at the question of whose stories we should be telling. I wanted to hear more about Stephen Smith's mother, Sandy, who is still looking for resolution about what, exactly, happened to her son and why, and how you were able to make sure she (and Stephen) weren't forgotten despite the all-consuming nature of the Murdaugh family crimes.
MM: Right!! The worst part about writing this book and sending the final draft to print is that Sandy, and Stephen, still have no answers. Stephen's story has been shoved to the side time and time again, muddled with rumor, a lack of transparency, and it deserves the attention of the world until answers are forthcoming.
Sitting with Liz at Sandy's kitchen table and hearing the pain in her voice is something we desperately try to convey in the pages. I want people to know how wrong it is that she has yet to learn how Stephen was ripped from this world - and I hope that this book stirs a sense of justice in whomever has the power to deliver Sandy justice for Stephen.
TCL: By the same token, a lot of entities had a vested interest in "ownership" of the Murdaugh case, and I wonder what it was like to be in the middle of what I think of a media firestorm -- all the national outlets (and members of what I call the "true crime industrial complex") descending, looking for scoops and exclusives, and in one ugly case, straight-up betraying you.
MM: I've seen a number of journalists describe this race for ownership, but I don't see it in that linear way. The goal for me, has always been to shine a light on the evil that created a cesspool of enablers that provoked and continue to protect the worst people in this saga. My goal was never to get clicks or downloads or listens or money or attention or fame or any of that. When we started our podcast journey we had three missions: To expose the truth wherever it leads, give voice to victims and get the story straight, because it seemed to me that everyone else was doing the opposite of those things. Sticking to my mission kept our reporting on track amidst the distracting insanity of the media firestorm.
TCL: There's still more to investigate with respect to the Murdaughs, and murders still to be answered for. But do you think you will stay on this story for years longer, or is a pause point -- or even an end point -- in sight, even if there are still lingering questions?
MM: I realized years ago that this is a marathon and not a sprint. The systemic change we call for needs time, attention, resources and a whole lot of sunlight. Even with the eyes and ears of the world on South Carolina's despicable imbalances in its application of justice, we still see: This month, thrice-accused rapist Bowen Turner will be released from prison after serving just over a year. We see Bowen's prosecutor who approved the sweetheart deal, David Miller, failing upwards toward being a judge in South Carolina and the system seems fine with that.
We see lawyer-legislators like Todd Rutherford use their connections and power to get murderers like Jeroid Price out of prison early. We see other powerful lawyer legislators with friends in the highest of places like Dick Harpootlian pulling every string they can to get convicted family annihilator Alex Murdaugh out of prison - or at least into a more comfortable stay at Club Fed. These people have no bottom.
That said, I would also like to have babies at some point - so there might have to be a little pause. . . at some point. But with our listeners, our supporters and everyone who wants to see change come to South Carolina and beyond, we plan to stick to our mission. So stay tuned, stay pesky and stay in the sunshine . . . we're just getting started.
Until next time, I remain,
The Crime Lady
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