Brother’s Blood by Scott Cawelti

As a college student, my drive to class would take me past a quaint little bed-and-breakfast right in the heart of rural Iowa. One thought would usually pass my mind as I would drive by the place:

“How the hell could anyone operate a bed-and-breakfast from the site of a mass murder?”

The murder dates back to 1975, as local farmer Les Mark was shot execution-style, along with his wife and 2 very young children. It is one of Iowa’s most infamous crimes, and is the subject of a book, “Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel” by Scott Cawelti, a retired college professor who went to school with the convicted murderer.

The man convicted, as one could guess by the title, was Les Mark’s brother. Much like Cain and Abel, the story laid out is one of brotherly jealousy, as Les Mark was slated to take over the family farm and real estate business. This infuriated big brother Jerry Mark, who planned out his revenge: a cross-country motorcycle ride (under the guise of “finding himself”) from California to Iowa. Jerry planned carefully, or so he thought, and carried out his crime. The police investigation uncovered many inconsistencies with Jerry’s alibi, such as phone records contradicting where Jerry claimed to be calling his girlfriend from. Another key piece of evidence: Jerry signed off on purchasing rare bullets that matched the type found at the murder scene.

Cawelti devotes three chapters to the trial, resulting in Jerry Mark’s conviction. Reportedly, Jerry’s lawyer advised him to take the stand in his defense, feeling this was the only shot at a ‘not guilty’ verdict, but Jerry refused.

Cawelti is a good writer, and puts out a narrative that quickly engrosses the reader, using a style much like Truman Capote did for the true crime classic “In Cold Blood.” The book is likely to have a narrow target audience, namely people like myself from Northeast Iowa that live in the vicinity of this crime scene, although I could see Cawelti’s talent for storytelling (I attended a pretty captivating book presentation of his, which is how I got the book) could potentially expand the book’s reach.

There are two really big issues I have with the book, however. While Cawelti is open about fictionalizing family conversations, dream sequences, and Jerry Mark’s personal thoughts, because these fictionalized portions take up such a major chunk of the narrative, I question the classification of “Brother’s Blood” as a nonfiction/true crime book.

More troubling, however, is the book’s glossing over of a 2006 US District Court ruling that ordered either a new trial or Jerry Mark’s release. This ruling was based on prosecutors withholding witness testimony from defense attorneys that undermined the case against Mark. Also, prosecutors claimed that cigarettes found at the crime scene were smoked by Jerry Mark. DNA testing on the saliva from those cigarettes ended up excluding Jerry (the advances in DNA testing taking place after Mark’s trial).

(The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court ruling, effectively shutting the door on this case.)

There has been plenty of evidence in recent years of prosecutorial misconduct resulting in the unjust imprisonment of innocent defendants. As of this writing, The Innocence Project says 289 people have been exonerated from DNA evidence. Both of these circumstances exist in this case. Failing to turn over evidence to defense attorneys is MISCONDUCT. The DNA on the only piece of evidence prosecutors had to place Jerry Mark at the scene of the crime DOES NOT MATCH.

I’m not arguing that Jerry Mark is innocent. But it seems to me the reader could imply reasonable doubt if these details were adequately addressed in the book. If Cawelti was interested in telling the WHOLE story of this heartbreaking saga, he would’ve devoted more pages to these developments. Since Cawelti believes Mark is guilty, he should’ve attempted to thoroughly debunk these details. Instead, they’re given a couple paragraphs.

That’s not good enough.

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