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True Crime Book Club - Past Titles: Jan. 2023

Trigger Warning: Take a look through our previous titles from our True Crime Book Club.

"The 57 Bus" by Dashka Slater

  1. The beginning of the book expresses the desire to do something to stop the events that are about to take place. What might a passenger on the bus have done to change things? What can any of us do to prevent incidents like the one that happened on the 57 bus?
  2. The book is about an alleged hate crime. Who in the story exhibits hate? Who exhibits love?
  3. Some people argue that bias crimes shouldn’t be on the books at all and that only deeds should be against the law, rather than the motive behind the deed.  Others argue that bias crimes are worse than other crimes because they arouse fear among an entire group of people. What do you think? Is it important to prosecute hate crimes? Why or why not?
  4. At one point Richard’s family members relate the case of Donald Williams Jr., a young black man who was bullied by his white roommates in a university dormitory. Like some of Richard’s friends and family said about what Richard did, Williams’s roommates defended their actions as a “prank.” Do you think the two cases are similar or different? What’s the difference between a prank and bullying, and between a prank and a hate crime? Is there a difference?
  5. Did Sasha’s family’s attitude toward Richard surprise you? Did you agree or disagree with their reaction? Why?
  6. Do you think Richard was being honest with the police when he told them his reason for setting Sasha’s skirt on fire? If not, why do you think he lied?
  7. What do you think is the goal of criminal punishment? Why do we put people in prison? Do you think it’s an effective strategy for reducing crime?
  8. What does it mean to forgive? Jasmine tells Richard to “forgive, but don’t forget,” while Richard counters that you have to forget in order to forgive. Which do you think is true?
  9. Who did you identify with or understand in the book? Who was harder for you to relate to?
  10. In the chapter “Court Date,” members of Richard’s family talk to the media for the first time. Why do you think people took their statements the way they did? What role does the media play in shaping how people see criminal cases?
  11. Do you think that Slater wrote in different voices for certain reasons? Why start the book from Sasha’s point of view? Why tell the trial scenes from the viewers’ perspectives instead of Richard’s?
  • It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. 
  • An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap, and a gauzy white skirt. 
  • For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.
  • As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. 
  • Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.
  • Richard Thomas, the 16-year-old boy who lit the skirt on fire, was arrested the following day. Citing the severity of the crime, the Alameda County district attorney charged Thomas as an adult, stripping him of the protections customarily afforded to juveniles. 
    • He liked to give and receive hugs and was known for his silly, childlike sense of humor, and his willingness to look foolish if it would get a laugh.
  • Richard and Sasha lived in the same city, but their paths might never have crossed if they didn’t both ride the 57 bus.
  • Every Alameda County transit bus is equipped with cameras that continuously record sound and video from multiple vantage points. I first watched the video of the attack in the office of William Du Bois, Richard’s lawyer, on a laptop in a conference room. 
    • In the video, Richard and Lloyd board the bus at the front. Richard, wearing an orange-brimmed New York Knicks hat, is quiet and smiling. The heavyset Lloyd is loud and rambunctious. After using his bus pass, Lloyd catches sight of a tall boy in a white hoodie sitting near the back and heads his way. According to Richard's statement to the police, it was this boy, whom Richard identified only as Jamal, who pointed out Sasha sleeping across the aisle from them, whispering, “Look at this dude.”
    • In the video, you can’t hear what Jamal says as he passes the lighter to Richard. Richard later told his lawyer and his mother that the whole thing was meant to be a prank. He thought the fabric would smolder for a moment, and Sasha would wake up and slap out the spark, startled but uninjured.
  • Two days after Richard’s arrest, the Alameda County district attorney announced the charges: aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, both felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that would add an additional one to three years in state prison to his sentence. If convicted, Thomas faced a maximum sentence of life in prison — a punishment he would never have faced had he been charged as a juvenile. Jamal, the boy who handed Richard the lighter, was never interviewed, arrested or charged.
    • In California, a state with close to 39 million people, hate-crime prosecutions have fallen 48 percent since 2003, with just 158 bias crimes filed for prosecution in 2012.
  • Seven months later, on the morning of Oct. 16, Richard sat with his left leg shackled to a wooden chair in the courtroom of Judge Paul Delucchi. He wore a gray county-issue sweatshirt and khakis, and while he had lost the terrified look of his early court appearances, his eyes were wary. There was a faint peach-fuzz mustache on his upper lip.
    • He was going to take a plea bargain. The mayhem charge and the hate-crime enhancements would be dropped, and Richard would receive a five-year sentence on the assault charge. With credit for time served and good behavior, the deal would have Richard, now 17, released before his 21st birthday, making it more likely that he could serve all his time in juvenile facilities.
    • But that morning, the deputy district attorney, Richard Moore, abruptly changed the five-year sentence to seven years. No explanation was given in court.
    • Under the terms of the deal, Richard’s sentence may still be reduced to five years if he meets certain benchmarks between now and July - full participation in available educational and rehabilitation programs, and a clean discipline record. But not all is in Richard’s control: Another inmate could pick a fight with him; a staff member might write him up for a minor offense. And because minors can be transferred to an adult prison as soon as they turn 18, a longer sentence makes it more likely that Richard will serve the bulk of his time in an adult prison rather than in juvenile facilities.

The Fire on the 57 Bus in Oakland - The New York Times

  • New York Times bestselling author Dashka Slater has been telling stories since she could talk. 
    • An award-winning journalist, she is also the author of eleven books of fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. 
      • Her children’s picture books include Escargot, winner of the Wanda Gag Read-Aloud Award; A Book for Escargot, an Indie bestseller; Dangerously Ever After, which is currently being made into an animated film by Fantasiation Studios; and The Antlered Ship, a Junior Library Guild selection and a Parents Choice Recommended book that received four starred reviews and was named Best Picture Book of the year by both Amazon and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. 
      • Her middle-grade Feylawn Chronicles series begins with The Book of Fatal Errors, which BookPage calls “A seamless combination of fantasy and mystery wrapped around a classical coming-of-age narrative,” and will continue in 2022 with The Book of Stolen Time.
  • Slater was the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts 
  • Slater grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts but has spent most of her adult life in Oakland, California, where she is always working on far too many writing projects.
  • Dashka’s best-selling true crime narrative, The 57 Bus, has received numerous accolades
    • the Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association
    • the Beatty Award from the California Library Association
    • a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor 
  • on its own steadily paced journey, and nearly two years after FSG published it in October 2017, the book landed on the September 8 New York Times bestsellers list. 
    • Though Macmillan declined to share sales numbers, the publisher released a 50,000 first printing and as it picked up steam, the publisher has gone back to press 14 times.


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