A line of people snaked through the Palms to view the grisly scenes—including some of the most notorious crimes in history. The two-day public exhibit, which drew more than 10,000 people, was part of the California Homicide Investigators Conference being held at the hotel-casino.
While the popularity of the free exhibit surpassed the Los Angeles Police Department’s expectations, it attracted controversy, as well.
The jacket, tie and shirt Robert F. Kennedy was wearing when he was assassinated in 1968 was going to be part of the exhibit until the Kennedy family objected.
Although the LAPD removed Kennedy’s garments from the exhibit, the question remained: Was this exhibit of crime-related items educational or exploitative?
Roger McGrath, a California crime and punishment historian, says the 8,000 square feet of artifacts from the state’s most notorious homicides helped raise empathy from the public for the work the police do. “I think most people are insulated from the reality of crime. They usually see only a cleaned-up murderer wearing an expensive suit in a televised courtroom appearance,” says McGrath, who taught at UCLA for 15 years. “I think it is essential that the public sees evidence gathered at crime scenes, including ghastly photos.”
Items showcased in the exhibit included a serving fork used in the 1969 murder of Leno LaBianca that was orchestrated by Charles Manson and a photo showing a trail of blood on a tiled walkway leading to Nicole Brown Simpson’s heaped-over body. The exhibit also included histories on the criminals and archived newspaper clippings.
Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra, says she received no warning items such as the rope used by the Manson Family in her sister’s 1969 murder would be on display. “It would have been very easy to call me since everyone in the L.A. district attorney’s office has my phone number. At which point, I would have said, ‘No,’” she says. “I wouldn’t have agreed knowing it was open to the public. If it was a closed seminar, I would have agreed. I don’t see the purpose. It was simply grandstanding.”
Jeffrey Dion, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C., wholly agrees with Tate. “Photographs and personal effects of victims should never be put on public display without the notification and consent of the families,” Dion says. “While they may have educational value to a group of homicide investigators, and it could be appropriate to use them in an educational setting, when they invite the public to view them, it trivializes the crime.” But Dennis Kilcoyne, an L.A. homicide detective and president of the California Homicide Investigators Association, says the exhibit was done to show the public the inner workings of a homicide investigation and showcase the hard work of the LAPD. “It’s done in a respectful professional, manner,” says Kilcoyne, who originally proposed the idea for the exhibit to Palms owner George Maloof. “We’re proud of our police department and we’re proud we could pull this off. This was a massive undertaking.”
In response to the fact that the LAPD wanted to put his father’s bloody clothes on display, Kennedy’s son Maxwell said in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, “It is almost incomprehensible to imagine what circumstances would have led to a decision to transport these items across state lines to be gawked at by gamblers and tourists.”
Dion maintains that people are, in fact, desensitized to this type of display. “Advocates have held for a long time that murder is not entertainment,” he says. “These were not publicity photos that were taken. These were crime scene photos.”
But McGrath says the victims’ status as celebrities is helpful in creating awareness. “If it takes celebrity victims and perpetrators to focus the public’s attention, so be it,” he says. “There is always the risk that some people will interpret such exhibits as macabre but, properly handled, such exhibits can be an important educational tool.”