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High Profile Cases: Does Media Coverage Harm or Help Justice?

03/28/2013 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2013

I might cover the trial in June of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. If I do, it will be the first high-profile, intensely watched criminal case I've covered in the Internet era. Which prompted me to reflect on difficult cases I've covered, and to draw a somewhat sobering conclusion about legal and journalistic melodramas. The most compelling ones I've covered over the years -- not necessarily in the order of their judicial or historic significance -- were in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, Mississippi, Washington, Philadelphia, and West Palm Beach, Florida.

An American woman, Lois Livingston McMillen, was murdered in what the media predictably called "paradise," the island of Tortola, on January 14th, 2000. William Labrador, also an American, spent three years in a BVI prison after being convicted of the crime by a Tortola jury. But Labrador eventually won an appeal before a London court, and was freed. The Tortola authorities were upset, with some justification.

The Emmett Till case in Mississippi was probably the most infamous lynching in the American South in the twentieth century. In 2005, at the time of the case's fiftieth anniversary, there was a prosecutorial move afoot to bring new suspects to justice in this infamous episode. That didn't happen. A grand jury declined to indict. But during that period two documentarians produced dueling films on the case. One of them, by fledgling filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, was released prematurely, the other, by experienced filmmaker Stanley Nelson, was quite acceptable as history, quite limited as journalism.

The Chandra Levy case, in Washington in 2001 , was often cited by media critics reflexively decrying journalistic excess. But it was a case that deserved serious media attention, as opposed to ratings-based hype. The case was finally resolved in 2010. In the 1981 Mumia Jamal murder case in Philadelphia, some conspiratorialists -- and/or those inordinately receptive to racially-based pleas of innocence -- concluded that Jamal was wrongfully convicted in the shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. They were wrong. But there were valid issues about the death penalty in this notorious cop-killing case that's drawn so much attention in Europe (mostly favorable to Mumia, a masterful media manipulator.) Finally, in 2011, the death penalty was rescinded and Mumia will spend the rest of his life in prison.

The murders of Rita and Lisa Bado in West Palm Beach were a quintessential Florida tragedy. The victims, mother and daughter, were escapees from the North. Rita, 40, was fleeing Connecticut after a bad divorce and she lived with her attractive daughter, Lisa, 20, in a modest apartment complex in West Palm Beach. They were murdered in their apartment in August, 1992, while Hurricane Andrew bore down on South Florida. An inmate of a Wisconsin prison was finally charged and convicted of the horrific crime twelve years later. The Florida were probably as relieved at this long-awaited development as Tortola law enforcement people were distraught at the overturning of the conviction in the McMillen homicide.

I've toyed with the idea, based on covering these "sensational" cases for various publications, that strong and protracted media scrutiny should mean that justice is better served.

But I'm afraid that's wishful thinking. There should, in other words, be a justice-affirming flip side to extended gang-bang coverage, but it usually doesn't work that way. For so-called serious journalists, that's disturbing.

Of the five cases I've covered, only the Bado and Levy cases were definitively settled with jury verdicts. And the Bado case, with the exception of one syndicated crime show based on a story I wrote for a Florida newspaper, received little or no national coverage. It didn't get saturation coverage locally either, being overshadowed by Hurricane Andrew.

The McMillen case was covered by Court TV and GQ, among others, and the defense first appeared to have the upper hand because Labrador claimed that as an American he was unfairly treated by local authorities. Then came the jury's somewhat surprising verdict against him, and he languished in jail until the appellate court, highly critical of the Tortolla authorities' use of a jailhouse informant, threw out his conviction. That decision is regarded as questionable not just by Tortollan authorities trying to save face, but by independent observers -- myself included -- who know that aspects of the case favorable to the prosecution have been ignored or insufficiently explored. So the bottom line is that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, heavy media attention notwithstanding.

The Till case, largely due to the release of Beauchamp's film, drew network coverage in 2005, not to mention stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, Newsday and The Nation (I wrote the latter two.) But efforts to make it the next Medgar Evers case, in terms of reopening it and possibly getting a conviction after half a century, did not materialize. (Two men were tried and acquitted of Till's murder back in 1955.)

In the Levy homicide, the critics' notion that sustained coverage of the story was an objectionable cure to the summer ratings doldrums in 2001 obscured the fact that media pressure helped put law enforcement pressure where it was believed to be due at the time: on Gary Condit and his lawyers. But while Condit (who apparently had an affair with Levy) was called to account and defeated for re-election, the killer was eventually found to be an illegal Salvadoran immigrant drifter who attacked Levy on a spring day in Rock Creek Park. So one could argue (although I wouldn't because I believe there were substantial reasons to investigate Condit) that the media over-reacted in the Levy case.

The Jamal case is a totally different matter. As noted, the death penalty was finally lifted and the media's continual harping on the case -- especially in the European press -- played a substantial role. But there's another way to look at it, and not only the family of the officer who Jamal murdered in cold blood sees it that way: did the media give Jamal more attention than he deserved? Were they spun by a clever killer confined to death row and obsessed by race? (That obsession, prosecutors would maintain, is what led Jamal to kill Officer Faulkner three decades ago.)

So once again, it's hard to support the argument that sustained media coverage leads to justice being served. It's a myth that prolonged media fixation with a case is inevitably bad, but it's certainly not inevitably good either. Like life and the criminal justice system, it's a crap shoot.