April 20, 2007
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:
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.
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...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?
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
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