The Blog

How Much do we Really Need to Know About Joanna Yeates' Death?

I understand the point of reading about murder and violent crimes in retrospect. The rest of it - the unopened Christmas crackers in her flat, the Googling of 'body decomposition' by her killer feels like pointless intrusions that threaten to make entertainment from a tragedy.

Every day last week I read about the Joanna Yeates murder case in more and more detail.

We now know much of the heart-breaking minutiae surrounding the fact that a 25-year-old woman was strangled to death in her flat a week before Christmas 2010. We know that she told a colleague she was 'dreading' spending the night alone from her boyfriend, that as she walked home she texted several friends in the hope that one of them would be available to keep her company (we have seen the exact transcripts) and that, when she finally decided to go back, she bought a couple of bottles of cider on the way that we know remain untouched and unopened in her kitchen.

And we know that shortly afterwards she sustained 43 injuries in a violent struggle that killed her. Vincent Tabak, the Dutch engineer living next door, has admitted to manslaughter in the trial, but not murder. It's alleged that later that evening he was cruising a supermarket aisle with Joanna's body outside in his boot, texting his girlfriend to claim he was 'bored'.

Each of these details has made a fresh headline, and as I've sat each morning like thousands of others absorbing the pitiful story I've arrived time and time again at the same question: what is the point of me knowing all of this? Being privy to the sad, lonely story of Joanna's death feels at best like a prolonged act of empathy with no real purpose and at worse, a type of morbid voyeurism.

I understand the point of reading about murder and violent crimes in retrospect. The methodology involved in solving high profile crimes and their cultural impact make them gruesome but fascinating subjects. But in the here and now, as the court, her family and her friends are still just putting the pieces together, how do the rest of us justify knowing the intimate details Joanna Yeates' death?

The first reason we allow ourselves to read 'bad news' or stories of others' misfortune is to feel empathy for the victims, and it's true - the finer details of a case can make that reaction all the more acute. As someone not particularly fond of my own company, I understood why Joanna was 'dreading' her night in alone, why she tried to spend it with friends and why she ultimately bought some booze, presumably for company instead. Reading that made me identify with her more than just the basic facts of her death did, and made me feel a deeper sense of sadness for what happened.

But what is the function of that empathy, and what do I do with it next? In some cases, you can react to stories of vulnerable people or victims of crime by donating money to them or a charity. Red Nose Day and Children In Need are shining examples of how this transaction works to do wonderful things. But in Joanna's case there is no logical place to donate anything.

Nor does her case highlight any worrying social trend we can become more aware of and adjust our own actions and views in response to. She'd didn't 'do' anything wrong. She wasn't wondering around a dangerous part of town. She didn't meet Tabak over the internet. She wasn't drunk in the back of an unmarked taxi. There is no cautionary tale for us or our children - she simply went home at a reasonable hour and was the victim of an unprovoked attack carried out by a man with no personal relationship to her who, seemingly, had no motive whatsoever.

Stories from the front line of war or from the most troubled sections of our society often also make unpleasant reading, but they are instructive. They give us a deeper understanding of where our political system is succeeding or failing, the state of our communities, and the possible consequences for our own futures.

But in this sad, insular story of one woman's dreadful and illogical death, what are we truly standing to gain by knowing, for example, that when her body was discovered by the side of a road, her white pants were visible beneath the fallen leaves and snow and an icicle, stained red with blood, hung from the end of her nose?

It seems undignified that Joanna's bewilderment and pain should become a temporary soap opera for the rest of us to read in installments on our way to work. This is why I've decided to tune out until the conclusion of the trail when we learn what really matters: how the person responsible is going to be punished. The rest of it - the unopened Christmas crackers in her flat, the frantic Googling of 'body decomposition' by her killer - feel like pointless intrusions that threaten to make entertainment from a tragedy.