Why facts should matter (even on the Internet)

A comment from John Burgess (left to my earlier post about the horrendous double murder in Tennessee) highlights an important point about information gathering. As he points out, it's "not a perfect art":

Things make their way into stories from weird sources. In this particular instance, I wouldn't be surprised if Ms Williams did, in fact, hear those details from a cop. But that's no insurance, of course, that the cop knew what he was talking about. Maybe so, but until there's a coroner's report, nobody can know for sure.
My concern is that interest in this case is growing by leaps and bounds on the Internet, fueled in large part by the absolutely hideous nature of the atrocities said to be involved. Let's face it, very few can ignore a story like this:

Innocent couple driving down the street fell victim to a carjacking, they were kidnapped, the man was raped while his girlfriend was forced to watch, he was castrated while alive, then murdered, following which the woman was kept and raped for four days, her breast cut off while she was alive, with both bodies being eventually burned.

OK, that's pretty much the story as it's being alleged all over the Internet, and in thousands of emails (which are of course forwarded and reforwarded). The Google hits have increased dramatically in recent days.

In many hours of researching this horror, the only allegations I have been able to verify are: carjacking, kidnapping, rape, murder, and cutting up and burning of the bodies.

Did they cut off the man's penis and the woman's breast while they were alive? The pre-mortem sexual mutilation is what I'd call Major Factor Number One in generating the intense grass-roots interest in this case.

We come to Major Factor Number Two. As one site puts it in huge capital letters,

MEDIA IGNORING HORRIFICALLY GRUESOME DOUBLE TORTURE & SLAUGHTER

The argument, of course, is that the media are ignoring this case because they don't want people to read or hear anything about black on white crime, but of course even unfounded allegations of white on black crime are cause for a national media feeding frenzy (along with a resultant lynch mob mentality).

Very powerful combination.

That's why I simply want to know what actually happened. Or at least, I'd like to know what evidence there is which might shine light on what actually happened. The victims are dead, and the horrendous events took place indoors, which means that the evidence can come from two places:

  • the suspects themselves
  • medical evidence from the coroner
  • It is unclear to me what the suspects might have told the investigators. Considering that they have criminal records, and may face the death penalty, it would not surprise me if one or more of them has been "snitching" (or "ratting") on the others, nor would it terribly surprise me if he embellished the details of what others did in order to curry favor for himself.

    But the word of a criminal suspect trying to avoid the death penalty is nowhere near as reliable as medical evidence, which can ultimately prove or disprove whether genital mutilation occurred, and whether it occurred before or after death. (Considering the huge public interest in television shows like CSI, I don't think ordinary people are incapable of understanding that modern forensic science can distinguish between pre-mortem and post-mortem injuries.)

    I have not seen a link to any medical examiner's or coroner's report anywhere which would indicate pre-mortem sexual mutilation.

    Once again, the only relevant links point to what is titled an "Opinion" by University of Maryland student Stefanie Williams:

    According to reports, his penis was then cut off before he was shot several times and set on fire, all while his girlfriend watched. His body was then dumped alongside train tracks. Christian was kept alive and gang-raped multiple times over a span of four days. Her breast was cut off while she was still alive and her kidnappers sprayed cleaning fluid into her mouth to cleanse it of DNA. Her body was then put into a garbage can.
    That's it. "According to reports." What reports? There are none I can find. There are plenty of links pointing to each other, and ultimately to the above, but nothing else. (Of course, it is also possible that there is something else, but despite a diligent search I haven't found it.)

    As John Burgess points out, it is quite possible that Ms. Williams is reporting honestly what was reported to her -- by a police officer, an investigator, a jail employee, someone from the medical examiner's office, or even an acquaintance of one of the suspects. If something was said to her and she reported it truthfully, her reporting might be accurate, but that does not mean the information is true. Of course, it is also possible that someone -- somewhere -- is lying deliberately.

    While I cannot make Stefanie Williams answer my email, I am not the only person trying to substantiate her allegations. I would think that by now, with WorldNetDaily and plenty of others interested in the case (including journalists like NRO's Jack Dunphy) someone would have managed to hear something more from her, and reported it. Her report is dated 04/04/07, and considering the immense interest in the case and the inflammatory nature of her allegations, perhaps she could update it?

    It should be noted that Ms. Williams has emailed Michael Gaynor of the Conservative Voice, and said this:

    "I've been blogging about this case that went on in Knoxville, Tenn...where 2 white kids were kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered by 4 black men and a black woman...the story was ridiculously gruesome, and I was shocked, SHOCKED to find not ONE main stream media outlet picked it up, not even Fox...

    " * * *

    "In a world where our most prominent news outlets spend 8 hours a day talking about who the father of a drugged up porn star ex stripper's child is, it saddens me that true victims like the 2 kids in this case go unnoticed."

    Blogging? Where? I can't find her blog, although 13 blogs mention her according to Technorati, while a Google Blog Search revealed 20.

    I'm of course assuming that there is such a student and that she did write what The Diamondback is calling an op-ed piece. Is that a valid assumption? (I don't mean to sound paranoid, but in the online world, identities can be created.)

    What's really eating at me is how all of this might affect the legal aspects of the case. I was trained as a lawyer, and I do believe in the concept of justice, and it is important that all suspects receive a fair and impartial trial -- no matter how horrifying the facts or circumstances of the case. From a prosecutorial perspective, (unless, of course, you're Mike Nifong and running for office) massive pretrial publicity is not good thing, because it makes it harder to find an objective and unbiased jury, and tends to turn the trial into a circus. Like it or not, there's simply no way to avoid the growing public interest in this case, which is why I think it is important to get the story straight. If massive publicity is based on allegations which later turn out to have been unsubstantiated, I think that might help the defendants avoid the death penalty, because the lawyers could then portray their clients as victims of a lynch mob. Activist defense lawyers like the late William Kunstler would have a field day painting poor black defendants as victims of massive, Internet-fueled hysteria, and false allegations promulgated by "right wing hate sites." And of course there are "right wing" hate sites which are all over this case. (Just Google "Channon Christian vnn" or "Channon Christian" "David Duke" for a sampling.)

    So, while I still have no idea whether Ms. Williams report will be substantiated, my worry is that floating around unsubstantiated allegations might interfere with the administration of justice. If this phenomenon worked to the advantage of the defendants (they are, after all, presumed innocent), whose cause would be served?

    The facts and evidence will all come out sooner or later, but right now, a lot of people are making up their minds based on facts they don't know, and evidence which cannot be found anywhere.

    This is my third post on this matter. Normally, I would not spend hours researching a criminal case in another city, but it just plain bothers the hell out of me to see so many people asserting what isn't yet knowable, and then screaming that the media are ignoring it. I'd like to see this case get the media attention it deserves, but I'd hate to see it get that attention in the wrong way. ("Internet hate sites whip up hysteria with false charges" or something.)

    A gruesome and horrible double murder like this will naturally tend to generate hysteria, and while it's bad enough to see hysteria precede actual evidence, here there's Internet hysteria based on the assumption of evidence which just isn't there. Too many people are behaving as if the facts don't matter.

    I think they do.

    MORE: Here's another thought. Is it possible that the MSM are being placed in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't situation? If they dutifully report all the gruesome details, might they then be accused of the type of sensationalism condemned in the wake of the Seung Cho video? (See Glenn Reynolds's link to Howard Kurtz's discussion of the "tidal wave of resentment.") Of course, a true and accurate crime report is not the same thing as showing a self-aggrandzing video made by a criminal. But might the MSM be accused of fueling further hysteria either way?

    Sigh.

    There's no way I can stop hysteria, but I still think facts matter.

    UPDATE: Mike Gaynor at Conservative Voice was kind enough to answer an email I sent him earlier. He stated that he has been in contact with Ms. Williams and "discussed her source(s) with her" but that "it would not be appropriate for me to reveal more."

    Mr. Gaynor also says that "the mainstream media is ignoring the case and should not." I agree, and I don't think he is under no obligation to reveal more. Nor, for that matter, is Ms. Williams. For now, I'm glad to see that her identity -- and her claim to have source(s) -- have been confirmed.

    People will just have to wait for the rest.

    UPDATE (04/22/07): My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link! Welcome all; I was out till all hours last night and I'm just catching up, but I especially appreciate the comments on this matter.

    posted by Eric on 04.20.07 at 08:16 AM










    Comments

    I've followed this case closely in the news since I live near Knoxville and used to know one of the suspects (not the ones suspected of the actual crime, but the one indicted as an accessory after the fact). It's hard to know all the facts because the police & prosecutors are keeping the details as quiet as they can. For several days they wouldn't even say where the original carjacking took place. All the horrors Stefanie Williams describes could have happened, but anyone who really knows anything can't go on the record in much detail.

    As for the media ignoring the case, it certainly hasn't received huge attention in the national media. Locally, it's a big case.

    Knoxville guy   ·  April 20, 2007 1:20 PM

    Thanks for sharing that. The way this is playing out is a bit on the mysterious side.

    Eric Scheie   ·  April 20, 2007 2:37 PM

    Thanks for that post. This has been bugging the hell out of me as well. I don't know that Gaynor's confirmation really comforts me, though. Still seems pretty sketchy.

    Ken   ·  April 20, 2007 7:52 PM

    LOL, mysterious? It is not mysterious at all.

    Facts do not mean @&#$-all. The agenda is all that matters.

    The media is well versed in not showing/reporting killings that undermine their agenda, just as they are well versed in rationalizing showing/reporting killings that do support their agenda.

    Facts are for wonks, navel gazers, bean counters. Raw footage which can be spun to support the desired agenda is what drives the emotional stream of conciousness product that makes it to the air waves.

    Joel Mackey   ·  April 20, 2007 7:54 PM

    Four black guys and a black women rape, torture, and murder a white couple over several days?

    Do you HONESTLY expect the media to cover that?

    OF COURSE NOT.

    Just as the media did not say what the race of the assailant was that tortured and raped and attempted to kill by arson a Columbia Co Ed. [He was of course Black.]

    Just as the media will not report on the disparity between black-on-white rapes vs. white-on-black rapes (around 17 times IIRC higher than the white-on-black rapes).

    Anytime you don't see the race of the suspect reported, you know it's a minority. Often Black. This of course conflicts with the Liberal Agenda and the news-management of the Orwellian thought police.

    Absent actual reporting (it was Four Black Men, one Black Women, victims were White, they were held for days while the woman was raped, etc) the rumors will only grow.

    I would not worry too much about the Criminal Trial. It is simply politically impossible for the alleged perpetrators to get more than 20 years. None of them will get the Death Penalty, even if the rumors were true. No one wants Rev. Al and Jessie Jackson doing their shakedown thing. So there won't be a trial but a plea bargain. A smart lawyer understanding the politics might even drive it down to ten years for the guys and time served for the woman.

    Jim Rockford   ·  April 20, 2007 10:24 PM

    There are two sets of facts, or not-facts.
    One is the jacking-kidnap-rape-murder which seems to be pretty clear.
    The other is the mutilation piece. Not so clear.
    One would think the first set of facts would get national attention.
    But then we recall that Mel Gibson's drunken rant served as an excuse for dropping without a trace the shooting--six shot, one killed--at a Jewish community center by a Muslim not a week earlier.
    Or the attention paid to Matthew Shepherd's murder versus that paid to the death of Jesse Dirkhising.
    Or James Byrd versus Kenneth Tillery.
    Hard not to see something here.
    So, while the second set of facts remains interesting and will ultimately figure in the trial, one way or another, the lack of attention paid to the first set is telling.

    Richard Aubrey   ·  April 20, 2007 10:34 PM

    Thanks for noting the comment. I'd only add that even a thorough post mortem may not result in definitive evidence. Sometimes the forensic investigations provide absolute proof. Sometimes they don't. Particularly with bodies that have been burned, evidence can be obscured or completely lost.

    I really don't see 'agenda setting' in crimes like these, though. Politics, sure. Certain hot-button issues, certainly. But most crime reporting in my experience has been pretty forthright, with the exception of the chatty cathies who try to make themselves more important than they really are.

    John Burgess   ·  April 20, 2007 10:44 PM

    Excellent words of caution. A problem with widely circulating rumors is that a small percentage of people will believe all of them, while a larger number will have one or two untrue items stick in their heads forever.

    Assistant Village Idiot   ·  April 20, 2007 11:47 PM

    "But most crime reporting in my experience has been pretty forthright"

    Does your experience including the recent forthright reporting on the Duke alleged rape case?

    Pedro   ·  April 21, 2007 12:16 AM

    Eric, so often what happens in a case like this is determined by politics. As an attorney you must know that DA's are always covering their asses.
    In the Madson/Mowder gay murder case there were two charges. The federal charge was for arson of 3 Jewish synagogues in Sacramento that preceded the murders. McGregor Scott, the local DA, was more than willing to let those charges be prosecuted first. It let him off the hook, if only temporarily, of trying a gay murder case in a religiously conservative community.
    But while those cases lingered in federal court, he had the Williams brothers locked up in his county jail.
    Guess what happened?
    Mathew Williams, the trigger in the murder case, got wind that a Jewish guard was on his floor. He attacked the guard, sending him to the hospital with severe brain injuries.
    And before he, Williams, could be tried on the murder or assault charges, he committed suicide.
    What was McGregor Scott's reward for this fiasco?
    He was appointed by Bush's Justice Department to the post of U.S Attorney in Sacramento, where is now presides.

    Frank   ·  April 21, 2007 2:05 AM

    What's the problem here - that the national media are ignoring this case? They should. There are thousands of murders every year; few of them are of national prominence. Rape and murder are violations of Tennessee law. Tennessee has police and a justice system, and it's their jobs to handle this case, and nobody else's.

    National - and, doubtless, superficial - coverage will just result in "trial by the press", which notoriously ignores the facts of a case. I think we'd all agree that facts are good, even vital, and that national press coverage can't establish fact.

    Now if, as the case progresses, it starts to become apparent that some serious irregularities are afoot - the prosecution might be trying to pull a Nifong on the defendants, or one of America's major race-baiters might by trying to extort the state into sweeping the whole thing under the rug - then we should be looking for national coverage.

    tom swift   ·  April 21, 2007 1:29 PM

    Tom Swift,

    What the hell are you saying with that last paragraph? Are you ignorant of the fact that the Duke case had national coverage before any of those things happened? I'm trying to take a charitable take on your motivations for writing that last paragraph, really, but it seems like you are just trying to muddy the waters. It's quite clear that there is a double standard.

    Brian Macker   ·  April 23, 2007 2:44 PM

    A few years ago, the quarterback from a powerhouse college football team saw a woman of his race in company with a man of a different race. The QB brutally assaulted the man (an off-duty cop) and knocked him unconscious. No jail time - and no great public outcry. He even sued the police for malicious prosecution!

    Can you guess the QB's race?

    http://espn.go.com/ncf/news/2000/0515/533120.html

    Rich Rostrom   ·  April 23, 2007 11:42 PM

    I can't imagine such horror. I mean I LITERALLY can't.

    Because I don't have a head.

    --James Byrd

    James Byrd   ·  April 26, 2007 5:43 AM

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