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Death and the Beauty Queen

by Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent

If the images of Nona Dirksmeyer's fresh open face convey a certain vulnerability, it shouldn't be too surprising; at 19 years old, though she sang beautifully, looked wonderful, and had been winning some local and entering state beauty pageants, she was still struggling with an awful secret.

Secrets, of course, do not survive murder investigations, and the details of Nona's troubles spilled out for all the world to pick over. 

Certainly her mother was shocked and dismayed when Nona told her that her own father sexually abused her when she was a little girl, and that later on she began to cut herself.  Imagine then, how horrifying for Nona's grieving mother when the whole town learned about not just that, but eventually, in open court, the extremely personal details of Nona's love life.

Repeatedly in recent years I have found myself in the company of parents who must struggle to make sense of the senseless death of a child, to go on after a murder. How Nona's mother Carol managed it, especially when her daughter's own secrets became such a significant part of the case, I do not know.

I left her understanding very well how important it was for her to find some form of justice... some answer.

So it was hard to fault her deep suspicion of Nona's boyfriend, Kevin.  After all, the local police and prosecutors -- the only authorities she could trust -- were convinced that he must have killed her.   And this was a boy she had long since begun to treat as a future son-in-law!

That, however, is where the whole terrible business -- including media coverage of the crime -- began to bog down in what amounted to family loyalties.  Or, as a supportive out of town relative called it, "local politics."

And highly polarized politics, at that.  Debates over the boyfriend's guilt or innocence actually stirred up regional resentments and rivalries that date right back to the civil war.  As a result,  covering the murder of Nona Dirksmeyer was a  sometimes tricky business; local media outlets began to take a lot of flak for allegedly slanting the story in favor of one family or the other, and no matter how thorough our efforts to tell the story even-handedly, somebody was always assuming we had to be on one 'side' or the other.  Obviously, we were not -- our mission is to follow each story as fairly and clearly as possible.  And of course, in this case, as in all others, its the jury that decides.

Were truth and justice served in Nona's case?  If you were to ask around in Russellville, Arkansas, the answer you'd likely hear as often as not is... no.   Perhaps, after a review of the facts, you'll come to your own conclusion. 

And just possibly, before too very long, Nona's  mother Carol will finally have her answer.  Along with some final justice for Nona Dirksmeyer.

'Death and the Beauty Queen' airs Dateline Friday, 10 p.m. For more videos, including more from Kevin Jones, and the Dirksmeyer and Jones families, click here. Click here to read a transcript of this report. We'll try to keep commenters to this blog post updated about the developments in this case.