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Author to speak on 1975 family murder

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Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 12:00 am

Calling all fans of local literature, Iowa history and true crime.

Scott Cawelti, UNI emeritus professor of English Language and Literature, will be the featured reader for this month’s Final Thursday Reading Series on March 31 at the Hearst Center for the Arts.

Cawelti, who asserts that this tale is “an Iowa story for Iowans,” will be reading from his forthcoming book, Brother’s Blood: The True Story of the Mark Family Murders, his retelling of one of Iowa’s most grisly crimes, the 1975 killings of the Leslie Mark family in their home just outside of Cedar Falls. Jerry Mark, brother of the victim and his family, was convicted of the murders, though all the while has maintained his innocence and continued to make appeals.

Cawelti, a one-time classmate of Jerry Mark's, became interested in the case 30 years ago. During the first few years of Cawelti’s research, he interviewed and corresponded with relatives of the murder victims, Jerry Mark himself, and various people involved with the investigation and prosecution of the case.

He was also given nearly unrestricted access to police records and interview transcripts, polygraph transcripts, and notes from the prosecution, together comprising an impressive array of resources for the project. Eventually the writing process stalled due to the prolonged process of several appeals, so the project was shelved for many years.

But in 2006, Jerry Mark made yet another appeal for a new trial, this time challenging the evidence that had convicted him, and Cawelti’s interest was reignited by the unsettling possibility of a man found guilty of murder being released back into society. It was not difficult to become involved again in the writing as Cawelti still had his treasure trove of research materials and had maintained relationships with prosecutor David Dutton and the investigators of the Mark case, some of whom have agreed to write prefaces to the book in its final incarnation.

The book itself has taken several forms and name changes as Cawelti played with writing the account as nonfiction or as fiction, finally settling on a creative nonfiction approach. Nonfiction, which would take the form of reportage, could be hurtful to surviving family members of the Marks while also leaving itself open to factual challenges; fiction alone is ultimately less satisfying than the truth in telling such a powerful story. The final product splits the difference between the two; Cawelti’s reconstruction of the story and the inclusion of some of the resources used in the process are bound together in the book, but kept separate within it in order to preserve accuracy and authorial integrity. Cawelti further describes the plot as a “whydunit” rather than a “whodunit,” as he believes that Jerry Mark is indeed guilty of the killings.

When asked how his research, writing, and subject compare to that most famous nonfiction crime novel, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Cawelti discussed the distance he kept between himself and those involved in the case. While Capote had visited Holcomb, Kansas just days after the Clutter murders and became a fixture in the community, Cawelti became involved in his own research of the Mark murders five years after they occurred, after the original shock and grief had settled.

And though Cawelti had been acquainted with Jerry Mark as former classmates, he kept a professional distance from him while conducting interviews; Capote notoriously became extremely intimate with most of the community surrounding the Clutter case, particularly with the murderers, which may have skewed his perspective somewhat. For Cawelti, it has been crucial to preserve the accuracy of the facts as presented to him through the investigators’ and prosecutor’s notes and records, while still honoring the Marks family in writing their story.

In addition to being an emeritus English professor at UNI, Scott Cawelti continues to design and teach film courses and compose and perform folk music accompanied by his acoustic guitar. Last year he released a CD of James Heart’s poetry called Landscape Iowa: 16 James Hearst Poems, Sung; he sang the lyrics of the poems to music he wrote and performed himself.Cawelti has also authored textbooks such as The Inventive Writer and Introduction to College Writing, edited The Complete Poetry of James Hearst, and contributed to several other books on poetry and the Midwest. More information on the Final Thursday Reading Series is available at

Final Thursday Reading Series

Hearst Center for the Arts

March 31,

7 p.m.

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