How Sara Gruen Lost Her Life

My friend and Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen spent six years trying to free a wrongfully convicted man from prison. The experience nearly ruined her life. I wrote about it for New York Magazine and The Marshall Project.

Thanks to everyone who read my story about Sara. So many people have expressed good wishes for her health and admiration for her advocacy on Charles Murdoch’s behalf. Many other people had questions, which I’ll try my best to answer.

  • Before Sara got involved in the case, Murdoch contacted the California Innocence Project (CIP). They initially took on his case. But (according to Murdoch and Sara), in 2013, they did not continue post-conviction efforts because they could not locate the main witnesses, Dinardo and Spence. The CIP declined to comment, citing confidentiality. I had a line about this in the story, but it was cut for space.
  • Sara’s best bet was to target the Los Angeles County Conviction Review Unit (CRU). The CRU, unlike CIP, has the power to subpoena Dinardo’s relatives to divulge his location.
  • Working with her team, Sara was able to find Spence, which the CIP had been unable to do. She hopes that the CRU will locate Dinardo and uncover new evidence on the coerced confession (in which he named Murdoch as the killer).
  • Considering the rigorous fact-checking systems in place at both New York Magazine and The Marshall Project, I was shocked when people asked if Sara was aware of the story. Yes, Sara fully consented to and participated in this story, which took well more than a year to research and write. It was cathartic for her to talk about it, and she’s relieved it is out there.
  • This story was not intended to be a deep dive into Murdoch’s complex case history and appellate efforts. It was about how trying to correct a miscarriage of justice affected my dear friend. I acknowledged our friendship early in the piece and wrote as objectively as I could.