Trial By Media

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

A few columns ago, I wrote about my interest in a pod cast called Serial. For those of you that don’t know, it examines a murder trial that occurred right down the road in Baltimore. Taking bits and pieces of the defendant’s testimony and public records, the host tried to objectively (I guess that’s what you’d call it, even though some would call it subjective) see whether the defendant received a fair trial, and, if possible, attempt to get him an appeal.
Whether or not the show was successful on that front remains to be seen. Although an appeal may be winding its way through the Maryland Court system, the grounds of said appeal are somewhat garden variety – ineffective assistance of counsel (means your attorney blew it). While in some quarters this is seen as a major coup, usually ineffective assistance of counsel is used in virtually every criminal appeal. Heck if your lawyer was any good, you wouldn’t have gone to prison, amirite?
However, while the show didn’t disprove much (some alibi witnesses changed their stories – sometimes multiple times during the run of the show), there are those that point to not only a heightened public interest, but also an increased media awareness of the case that led to the aforementioned appeal. Was Serial a factor in the appeal approval? I would say absolutely.
Recently, the Jinx, an HBO series about Robert Durst, experienced a similar situation. For those that don’t know, Durst is an eccentric member of a New York Real Estate millionaire (maybe even billionaire) clan. He’s a pretty strange dude – he doesn’t really have a job, dresses strange and acts even stranger. Over the past few decades, it seems as though being a friend or acquaintance of Durst’s could have negative implications on your health. No fewer than three people have died, rather horribly, in his pool of associates. One was his wife, the other was a female friend and the third was an individual that lived in the same apartment house as Durst.
Durst was actually arrested on murder charges for the last murder. However, he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense; the other two seemed like tragic mistakes – wrong place at the wrong time sort of stuff. The series explored that fertile ground, chalking a lot of these incidents to tragic coincidence. Until the cameras and microphones caught a few details that left prosecutors salivating.
The first was a note from Durst to one of the victims. It seemed as though, from the video of the letter, the handwriting on that letter matched an unsigned note found at the crime scene. According to some prosecutors (and armchair detectives) the similarity in the writing was enough to trace the note at the scene to Durst, putting him there at the time of the murder.
The second came from a hot mic that recorded Durst as he went to the bathroom. Apparently, Durst was asked about the three tragic events. He then excused himself to go to the bathroom. While taking care of business, the microphone picked up Durst saying something to the effect that he killed them all. Again, this apparent admission set tongues a wagging.
As you can imagine, I have some issues with all of this. The Serial information and appeal is fine – it just means that the case will be retried (if it gets that far) with any information the defense was unable to, or unwilling to, present at the first trial.
However, the Jinx information is a little out of left field. First, I hear similar things quite often from potentially aggrieved persons. While I can’t say for certain, most people sign so many things at certain times that, especially if the document isn’t in your favor, you could forget or convince yourself that you didn’t sign the document in question. But handwriting analysis is a big and expensive business. Usually, to determine whether a signature has been forged takes an expert a great deal of time and effort, as well as the time the expert will take to testify. This puts handwriting analysis out of reach for most of us – but probably not Durst. Experts, as we know are paid by someone. Wink. Wink.
Regarding the statement, I can understand why prosecutors would be interested, but it doesn’t prove a thing. Durst could have been talking about anyone or anything – he’s not entirely mentally balanced. It may be enough probable cause to open an investigation, but it’s not dispositive of anything.
Used to be we had a distaste for trial by media. Now, it seems as though the media can potentially get you convicted or freed.

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