ZEKE Book Reviews
edited by Michelle Bogre
The Verdict: The Christina Boyer Case
by Jan Banning
Schilt Publishing, 2022 | 200 pages | $50.00
Reviewed by Dana Melaver
In 1992, Christina Boyer’s toddler daughter Amber died from blunt head trauma that occurred while Amber was with Boyer’s boyfriend. Even though the evidence against her was mostly circumstantial, Boyer was charged and faced the death penalty. Her lawyer convinced her to take an Alford plea to spare her life. (An Alford plea allows the defendant to maintain her innocence while agreeing that the prosecution has enough evidence to find her guilty at trial.) She was the victim of a grossly inadequate defense, shoddy police work, and a zealous District Attorney in an election year. She remains in jail 30 years later and still maintains her innocence.
Jan Banning’s book, The Verdict: The Christina Boyer Case, tells the story of a mother, Christina Boyer, accused of, and incarcerated for, her daughter Amber’s murder. What started as a single interaction between photographer and subject, became a years-long investigation. The result is a carefully crafted book that paints a vivid picture of Christina’s case, elucidates the faults of the U.S. justice system, and meditates on the impartiality of photography. It is also a simulacrum for Christina’s parole application.
The book is reminiscent of a dusty family album found in an attic. The cover image – a dark wooded scene punctuated by a child’s discarded red tricycle – could illustrate a Grimm’s fairy tale. This darkness is contrasted by the pink spine, Amber’s favorite color. Amber, now fossilized in dance, graces the back cover. The covers create an atmosphere based on these associations, and the reader enters with an expectation of what is to come.
Neither words nor images make up a truth, and Banning works with this awareness to structure the book. It’s separated into disparate chapters, each addressing an element of a singular story. The book begins in Banning’s own words, as he presents the case history. He lingers on Christina’s background and her character, as he follows the timeline from her childhood to present, incarcerated day. He gives the reader insight into what may have occurred the day Amber died, as well as an overview of the legal processes that ultimately led to Christina’s life sentence. The proceeding sections include Christina’s diary entries and photographs taken by Banning in the South, paired with Christina’s interpretations of Banning’s photographs. Words, photographs, and interpretations, slowly build up a vibrant idea of the truth.
Photo by Jan Banning
Reading through The Verdict, a comparison materializes between judicial and photographic representation. Both in court and in a photographic frame, people may be represented – and often misrepresented – in a variety of ways, outside of their control. Leading up to her plea agreement, Christina is told that the autopsy photographs of Amber’s body will undoubtedly lead the jury to convict and sentence her to death. The feeling that these photographs would evoke becomes the main reason Boyer took a plea.
The emotional entanglement inherent in photography is particularly poignant in the section dedicated to Christina’s diary. A journal is splayed out over a two-page spread. It lays on a royal blue background that bleeds to the edge of the pages. The reader’s eyes have nowhere to run. Page by page, entry after entry, I read Christina’s thoughts in the years following Amber’s death. The writing feels both legible and incomprehensible, as I struggle to let her words in, to experience her pain. My eye follows the curve of the letter, and I feel her hand writing these words. It’s overwhelming. I skip ahead to the last page. Her diary appears again, this time typed up in a sort of transliteration. Christina’s words disconnect from her script, which allows the reader to disconnect from her body, her pain. The text is a colder, more sober entry into Christina’s mind, while the images are far more entangled with emotion.
By presenting both versions of her diary, Banning offers a multifaceted representation of Christina. As expressed in the book, America’s public defender system is teeming with problems, such as underpay and overexertion, and Christina is only one individual who has lost decades of her life partially due to a lack of adequate representation. Banning’s collection of images is an attempt at rectification. Every year Christina applies for parole. Her supporters send a packet boasting of her work and achievements, in the hopes of her release. Every year she is denied. While this book is an important read for the public, it is also, to a certain extent, Christina’s appeal for parole.
This humanity is also what separates The Verdict from the influx of true crime published in the last years. The book is delicately crafted, with both an awareness of the medium’s shortcomings and a complex representation of the subject. Banning’s empathetic hand differentiates The Verdict as a work of art and a piece of activism, or — as Banning would put it — artivism.