Thursday, August 25, 2011

Anatomy of how a boy's rape lie, and the media's rush to judgment, can turn an innocent life upside down

There is a villain in the false rape milieu who is rarely blamed.

He or she is typically pretty, articulate, and damn scary.

The villain is your local television news journalist reporting on a rape claim, and he or she often does more harm to the accused than the actual rape liar. 

This is an important, and almost entirely overlooked phenomenon that can and needs to be corrected.

A 48-year-old Kentucky man, who had no prior criminal record aside from some traffic tickets, was falsely accused of rape by a 12-year-old boy. The boy had been swimming with two girls and another boy in a lake near their homes when they saw an old, white former police car circling the neighborhood before parking near a wooded area that surrounds the lake.  "I seen the white car keep going up and down the street, like three or four times," said the young accuser.

The man got out of the car, and the boy yelled to his friends "run, run, run."  Apparently the boy's friends took off and left the scene.  The boy described the alleged rape: "He put his hand over my eyes and covered my eyes then drug me to the woods and pushed me into the dirt, then pinned me down," the boy said. The boy claimed that when the man let go of him, the boy turned around and caught a glimpse of his face. That's how he was able to supposedly identify the man.

A television news reporter had the boy tell his frightening story on the air. "This is like my worst nightmare," the boy confided to the entire viewing area.

Police said they linked the man to the crime through a vehicle description and a positive identification by the "victim."  Within hours, before any forensic evidence was collected, and based solely on the word of the boy, the man was arrested and charged with first-degree rape.

The man's attorney said he had an alibi. "Given the opportunity, we had evidence showing exactly where he was at the time this was taking place," he said. "He was ordering a home movie from his telephone number."

A neighbor told a television news reporter that the man seemed to have mental problems. "He runs around the neighborhood and he tells everybody he is a cop, he's not a cop," said the neighbor. "He definitely, by talking to him, he has mental problems."

The man was held for two days before posting bond and was released to house arrest. A television news reporter investigated why the bond was set "fairly low."

A news broadcast showed a reporter banging on the door to the man's home, looking to snag an interview. The man, apparently, had vacated his home.  Neighbors say he moved out and the place is now up for sale. "I don't see him returning to this area anytime soon if he's got a brain in him," said a neighbor in a surly voice.

The boy's mother was outraged by the incident, and by the fact that the man was released. "Honestly, I'm ready to kill the man," she told a television news reporter. "That's the honest truth." She added: "I don't understand how they can sit there and let a sick individual on house arrest when people who do such minor crimes have a hard time getting out." 

The news coverage sloppily referred to the boy as "the victim" on numerous occasions.

The boy was taken to a hospital where a forensic interview was scheduled. A criminologist investigated the scene. It turns out that there was no forensic evidence to back up the boy's claim. Police said the boy's tale wasn't adding up. The boy changed his story, and admitted to police he had lied. “The alleged victim changed his story and admitted to investigators and that incident did not happen,” said a sheriff’s department sargeant.  (A newspaper quoting the sergeant left out the "alleged" before the word "victim.")

The man experienced death threats and said his life was turned upside down; ruined, in fact. It would be difficult to fathom the humiliation this man experienced. He did not even know the boy and had no idea why he was targeted.

The man's attorney had to jump through hoops to have the charge permanently removed from his record. It's not done automatically.

The boy's father told a television news reporter that his son does have a history of exaggerating, but that he still believes the boy is telling the truth. He claims the boy was pressured to change his story. (A television news broadcast reported that latter tidbit, allowing lingering doubt about the man's innocence.)

Police are investigating possible charges against the boy.

Lessons: Iconoclast film director and gadfly Michael Moore, who made the brilliant "Roger & Me," once made a film called "Bowling for Columbine" that explored why Americans are so heavily armed.  You might disagree with Moore's politics, but it's hard to fault the reason he posited: America lives in a culture of fear, largely stirred up by its news media.

It's true. Fear sells. And there's not much scarier than rape.

Fortunately for us, in this case, we have links to various television news reports about the alleged crime that give us a chance to explore how the media treated a claim that turned out to be false. A written description cannot do them justice. They are included among the links, below.

The most important lesson of this case is one we see repeated here over and over: the media coverage, and especially the television media coverage, of alleged rapes feeds our collective inclination to overreact to heinous sex crime accusations. (And by "our," I mean mostly men -- sorry guys, I might be wrong, but that's my observation.)

If we could change just two or three things to bolster the rights of the presumptively innocent persons accused of rape, one would be this: news reporters need to stop reporting rape claims that are under investigation as if a rape certainly occurred. I can't say it more plainly.

Time and time again we see television news reporters doing live reports from the "scene" of an alleged rape in a manner intended to scare more than enlighten. Speaking in ominous, alarmed, and almost urgent tones, they present news of the accusation as if a crime had certainly occurred, and they hide behind the usual "police say the assault occurred here, in this parking lot . . ." to make it sound as if a thorough investigation has arrived at the truth.  In point of fact, in case after case after case where the claims turned out to be false, we learn that the police already had serious doubts about the claim by the time the story aired. Those doubts are never voiced in the news story.

After a scary grabber to their reports, the news reporters interview the "victim" and his or her family to get the gut-wrenching, first-hand recitals of the trauma. Never do reporters challenge the alleged victim's story, and rarely do they explore the minutiae of the story with follow-ups. I suspect TV news reporters spend more time standing on street corners with a microphone in their hands, adjusting their hair and awaiting their cues, than actually investigating the story.

It's show business folks -- actually, more like gonzo demagoguery -- and the joke's on us for thinking it's news. The problem is that it masquerades as "news," and it makes viewers assume they are hearing the truth about a presumptively innocent guy.

Then the reporter tries to interview the accused, and the camera shows an arm and an ominous "knock-knock-knock" on the accused's front door. No one answers. (What purpose does it serve to show the hand knocking?) Since no accused person in his right mind would speak to the media without counsel during an ongoing criminal investigation, the attempt to interview him is more for television drama and to create the appearance that the reporter is being even-handed. It allows the reporter to present just one side of the story without seeming to be biased -- the side that claims a rape occurred, the scary side, the side that gets big ratings. Then the reporter heads off to get a sound byte from a neighbor in the vicinity of the rape, and that almost always involves the neighbor relating how alarmed everyone is to have a rapist in their midst.

If the viewer had been served up the truth instead of a mini-Lifetime movie, the harm to the innocent man would have been much lessened. No, we're not saying the news media should have known the claim was a lie before police did.  But if the newscasts had reported that the claim hinged on the word of one boy, that the accused denied it, and that the police were investigating it -- without the ominous tone, the scare fluff, the knocking on the door, the softball interview with the "victim" and his family -- the viewer would not have been urged to jump to conclusions, and a presumptively innocent man would have received a fair shake.

In the aftermath of the Hofstra false rape debacle, mainstream media reporters held a forum at the school and echoed the sentiments expressed here. WCBS-TV's Jennifer McLogan said journalists should have "proceeded with more caution." Carol D’Auria of 1010 WINS agreed: "We just really need to move slower." She candidly added: “But I don’t see that happening.” The New York Post's Kieran Crowley noted: "I'm a mom with three kids in college; two girls and a boy. I wouldn't want my daughters to be the victim, but I wouldn't want my son railroaded either."  Sadly, our sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, and nephews are being railroaded far too often, and nobody seems to care.