Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Published: August 28, 2006 8:15 PM ET updated 11:00 PM ET and Tuesday
NEW YORK After two weeks of frenzied and often jump-to-conclusions media coverage, Colorado prosecutors on Monday dropped their case against John Mark Karr over the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey.
Prosecutors threw out the case after DNA tests failed to place Karr at the crime scene despite reports he had confessed to killing the six-year-old. The local district attorney, Mary Lacy, admitted Monday, “No evidence has developed, other than his own repeated admissions."
An Associated Press article late Monday referred to how "a hyperactive press went into overdrive, eager to pronounce guilt." It also noted that the AP and other news organizations "placed teams of journalists on Karr's flight from Bangkok to the United States and chronicled his dining experience" of champagne, fried king prawns and roast duck.
Writing on Tuesday for The Washington Post, media critic Howard Kurtz fumed: "This was such a sham, from the opening moments, that it instantly goes down with the greatest media embarrassments in modern history." And he kept blasting after that.
"The warrant on Mr. Karr has been dropped by the district attorney," Karr's defence attorney Seth Temin had said Monday. "They are not proceeding with the case....We're deeply distressed by the fact that they took this man and dragged him here from Bangkok with no forensic evidence confirming the allegations against him and no independent factors leading to a presumption that he did anything wrong."
The AP report observed: "The admission by prosecutors that they had the wrong man might have seemed shocking if this had been any other case. But in the context of the Ramsey case -- an investigation beset from its earliest stages by gross misjudgments by investigators -- it struck many observers as not only expected, but also grimly fitting.
"The decision to drop the charges against Karr completes a 12-day arc that echoed many of the themes that have characterized the case, albeit on a more compressed, but no less bizarre scale. It was made all the more ironic because Karr's arrest earlier this month came as the nation appeared almost to have forgotten the case."
A Google search for "John Mark Karr," who was unknown until this month, came up with 10,800,000 results at the time of the latest twist. "John Mark Karr" with "Ramsey" added produced 6.7 million returns.
On August 17, E&P was among the first to question the initial assumption on the part of many in the media that Karr was almost certainly guilty, in an article headlined, "Rush to Judgment in JonBenet Case?"
That article, updated the following day, follows.
Is the press going overboard in its coverage of the latest twist in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case -- and suggesting, too early, that the suspect suddenly in custody, John Karr, is guilty?
An Associated Press dispatch late Thursday afternoon raised questions which it said "led some to wonder whether Karr was the answer to the long-unsolved slaying or a disturbed wannabe trying to insert himself into a high-profile case."
The New York Times later on Thursday observed that "by day’s end, it remained unclear whether Mr. Karr’s confession was genuine or the product of a troubled, attention-seeking man who had already exhibited a fervent fascination in the sexual abuse of children in general, and in the death of JonBenet Ramsey in particular."
It all seemed so much simpler earlier in the day. The front page headline in New York's Daily News read: "SOLVED." The main arrest story in Denver's Rocky Mountain News opened starkly: "The decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey's killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday."
The same paper, in a headline for an editorial, declared, "Arrest is warning against rush to judgment." It didn't mean now. It meant the wide belief in the past that one of the girl's parents may have killed her. Now the same might soon be said about the early media coverage of the Karr arrest.
The Boston Herald editorial was titled: "A tragedy nears an end." The Denver Post carried a headline: "Family's years of fear, anger come to an end." But a few hours later another headline there read: "Cracks in confession fuel skepticism."
Investigators in Thailand told the Associated Press on Thursday that Karr has made several dubious statements to them, including claims that he picked JonBenet up from school the day she was killed and that he drugged her. Actually, she was on Christmas vacation at the time, and there was no evidence of drugs in her body during the autopsy.
Then, on Friday, the same Thai officials, again speaking to AP, changed their account of what Karr had said to them.
In any event, much of the media at first downplayed assertions by Karr's ex-wife that he was with her in Alabama at the time of the murder.
Boston University journalism professor Fred Bayles, a longtime national writer for The Associated Press and USA Today -- among other subjects, he covered the O.J. Simpson murder probe -- told E&P today: "The latest chapter in the JonBenet case offers a journalistic cautionary for both the past and the future.
“For now, there are questions about the suspect’s claim he was with the girl when she died. His ex-wife has said he was in Alabama at the time of the killing and that, also, he was apparently obsessed with this case and another one in California. The media might be better served to hold off on the breathless rush to pronouncements in this case, as we’ve seen in the past.
“Everyone is going to look pretty foolish if there is no solid evidence, such as DNA, to back up his claims of involvement.
“It was this same rush to judgment that in the past made this case even more of a tragedy for the Ramsey family ... the focus of so-called journalists whose careers, and egos, were devoted to implicating them. I’m wondering how those people will feel if Karr is convicted."
Indeed, after many in the media had already passed judgment, the district attorney in the Ramsey slaying, Mary Lacy, said Thursday there is "much more work" to be done in the case against the suspect, and she warned the public not to "jump to conclusions."
“It’s a wacky confession full of holes,” said Craig Silverman, a legal analyst in Colorado who has watched the case closely for years.
Looking at the larger picture, Bayles comments that "the larger question for the media is how and why cases like these take on such a lurid life of their own? Is the public really that interested or are certain elements of the media driving the interest? Indeed, this case became a cottage industry for various aspects of the media, not just confined to cable television and the tabloids.
“Some of the reasons are obvious. If there had not been the endless tape loop of this cute little girl performing in various beauty pageants made up as a woman/child, this story probably would not have been a media obsession initially driven by the broadcast media."
Scott Robinson, legal analyst for a Denver TV station, said Thursday, “In this particular case when you have an uncorroborated confession, I think it’s good to be cynical and to be skeptical. The suspect seems to be ducking questions about his connection to the Ramsey family&hellip how the little girl came to be in the basement with him in the first place....
“This is either the break that we have all been waiting for, or the biggest hoax that’s ever been perpetrated in the JonBenet Ramsey case, a case that has had its share of wacky people involved in it.”