A new case study published by The Crime Report focusing on the media and the justice system, uses three case examples:

  • The Groveland Four in 1949
  • Kirk Bloodsworth in 1985
  • Walter McMillian in 1986

The triple case study was prepared by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Center on Media, Crime, and Justice, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and crime journalist David J. Krajicek for the Symposium on Crime in America.  The three cases are textbook examples of how police and prosecutors are led down the wrong investigative path and the media quickly follows head first.

“The media plays a role in these cases…There’s a dynamic involving the public, the press, and the pressure placed on police and prosecutors…does the media drive the interest and demand…or does it reflect the pressure that comes from elsewhere…?” said Jon Gould, American University law professor and wrongful conviction researcher.

GROVELAND FOUR

Speaking of the Groveland Four case, Gary Corsair, author of The Groveland Four:  The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching, said “every reporter just concluded it was an open-and-shut case…I’m still disturbed that reporters knew about questionable issues…but did nothing.  They sold their souls…

An editor for small newspapers in the Groveland area, W.V. Morrow admitted that false information, like in the Groveland case, disseminates quickly throughout the media because it is assumed true if not promptly denied.

devil-in-the-grove-survivorsIn 1949, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin, and Charles Greenlee found themselves in the custody of Sheriff Willis McCall soon after a rape was reported.  Ernest Thomas, a fourth suspect, was hunted down by a posse of about 1,000 men and shot to death by a dozen bullets, including 3 or 4 to the head.  There was no official inquiry into the shooting.  The Orlando Sentinel headlines seemed almost gleeful that people in the community were being terrorized.

Arsonists who set fire to African American homes following the arrests were called “nightriders” by the media.  The editor for the paper, Martin Andersen threatened black residents that they should not file complaints with the police.  This warning ran on the same day as an electric chair cartoon in relation to the Groveland case.  It is believed that Andersen heard that the NAACP wanted inquiries into the serial arsons, so he wrote, “a few smart lawyers…seek to hamper justice through the employment of legal technicalities.  They may bring suffering to [others]…

In the Groveland case, the public battle came down to the national media versus the local media.  Ramona Love of the Chicago Defender and Ted Poston of the New York Post brought attention to the evidence of innocence in the Groveland Four case, but the local media and public put up a fight.  Sheriff McCall told the press that the three had confessed and that Norma Padgett, the alleged victim, identified them.  Those comments were printed as fact, over and over again.  Yet, the statement was far from true.  Mabel Reese, an editor for the Mount Dora Topic had a change of heart part way through her coverage of the case and began to be critical of the state’s case.  Her dog was then poisoned, she was declared a communist, and advertisers abandoned her paper.  The first Florida reporter to think critically about the case was Norman Bunin of the St. Petersburg Times.

The three boys were quickly convicted 6 weeks after the alleged crime and two were sentenced to die:  Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were 23 years old and Charles Greenlee who was only 16 was sentenced to life in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Shepherd and Irvin’s convictions in 1951, writing:

“…prejudicial influences outside the courtroom, becoming all too typical of a highly publicized trial, were brought to bear on this jury with such force that the conclusion is inescapable that these defendants were prejudged as guilty and the trial…but a…gesture to register a verdict already dictated by the press and the public opinion…it generated…of course, such a crime stirred deep feeling and was exploited to the limit by the press…[many articles were highly prejudicial including one] picturing four electric chairs…headed ‘No Compromise – Supreme Penalty.”

The new trial was a short lived victory, 7 months later, the two were shot by the sheriff who claimed the handcuffed men, tried to attack him.  Shepherd was killed, but Irvin lived.  He said McCall shot the two without provocation, but his claims weren’t taken seriously.  At Irvin’s retrial, the prosecutor, who didn’t complain about the prejudicial local coverage, complained about the national coverage, which was somewhat more balanced.  The outcome was the same, Irvin was convicted and sentenced to die.  His sentence was commuted to life in 1955.  Greenlee was paroled in 1962 after serving about 11 years and Irwin was paroled in 1968, after serving about 17 years.

The Groveland Four and their families have been turned away by the Florida state government repeatedly over requests for exonerations.  Many believe that Padgett’s rape allegation was merely an alibi for her after she was caught by her husband doing something she shouldn’t have been.

“The number 1 lesson is obvious:  you can’t accept anything at face value.  You have to question everything and everyone.  You cannot assume that people in positions of authority are necessarily honorable just because it says judge or sheriff or prosecutor in front of their name,” Corsair said.

WALTER MCMILLIAN

The investigation had gone cold.  Ronda Morrison, 18, was shot three times on November 1, 1986 at the dry cleaner’s where she worked.  There were no witnesses.  Rumors spread like fire that it was a serial killer or escaped inmate.  The story of the murder was published in the Monroe County Journal as “No Arrest Made in MurderNothing happened for weeks then months.  The public became antsy and demanded comeuppance.

“These are often horrific crimes with sympathetic victims, and they play out in a community that puts a lot of attention on the case and wants resolution quickly,” said Sara Sun Beale, a law professor at Duke University, who researches wrongful convictions.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative said, “A young white woman…privileged was murdered…shocking the community and the police didn’t make an arrest…Why can’t these law enforcement people solve a horrific crime…?  What’s the deal?  Do we have the right kind of sheriff, do we have the right kind of prosecutor?”

WALTER MCMILLANAn arrest was announced about 7 months later.  It was puzzling.  Ralph Myers, 30, had been arrested in connection with an unrelated homicide, the beating death of Vickie Lynn Pittman, 18.   Facing murder charges, Myers told police that he could help them solve Morrison’s murder.  He told the police the killer was Walter McMillian (left), 46.  Myers also told police that McMillian had attacked and sodomized him on a previous occasion.

Just like in the Groveland case, the media was a compliant agent of the state.

“You’re completely dependent on them for your information…you can’t really be critical…can’t really be antagonistic or adversarial, or even ask an edgy question,” Stevenson said.

Coverage of the arrests of Myers and McMillian lacked all critiques and were congratulatory toward the arresting officers.  Alvin Benn, a reporter, wrote:  “‘The broad-daylight slaying had shaken this south Alabama community…Many were alarmed because they felt it must have taken some nervy people…,’ Sheriff Tommy Tate said.  Tate declined to go into specifics about the investigation, but he did say he felt the evidence was enough to gain [a] conviction.”

McMillian was described by the prosecutor and sheriff as a drug dealer.  He had minor marijuana arrests.  There were false suggestions he was linked to the mafia.

“…There was the kind of demonizing of the accused that you have to have,” said Stevenson.

McMillian was a rather ordinary man, with the exception of having an ongoing affair on his wife.  He worked at a pulp mill.  He lived in a poor community.  The Monroe County Journal, the only newspaper in Monroeville, became the default resource newspaper for the case.  Monroeville was the hometown of Harper Lee, the celebrated author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a fictional story about a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman.  

“The town’s needs are basically set above the truth…the local paper is not going to report honestly about something that doesn’t contribute to the identity that they want people to see,” Stevenson said.

Based upon the testimony of Myers, McMillian was convicted in a three-day capital trial in 1988.  There were 12 defense witnesses who testified that McMillian was at a fish fry at the time of the murder.  That didn’t matter, he was convicted none-the-less.  McMillian didn’t testify on his own behalf, but he spoke before his sentencing,

“I didn’t kill that girl.  Ralph Myers don’t know any more about me than the man in the moon.”

The jury recommended life, but using the judicial override rule allowed under Alabama law, Judge Robert Key condemned McMillian to die by electrocution.  McMillian was sent to Alabama death row.  In one of the most shocking discoveries unearthed by the Equal Justice Initiative, McMillian was being held at an undisclosed location “for security reasons” while he awaited trial.  He in fact was already being held on death row at Holman State Prison.  In effect, the judge merely sent him where the system already assumed he should be.

“They take someone before a trial and put him on death row? That’s prejudiced or racist. That’s all it was.  There is no doubt about it,” McMillian said. “I stayed in that one cell, until I got out…”

Myers, who received a life sentence for the murder of Pittman, was overcome by his conscience, unlike the media or the government, and he recanted.  He also accused investigators of inventing the rape story.  The case became a classic example of a wrongful conviction, underscored by a perjured informant, tunnel vision, and prosecutorial and police misconduct.  The lesser-known and often overlooked compliance of the media and public who watched it all happen also contributed.  It was always obvious and should have at least been questioned that Myers was implicating McMillian to save himself.  The fundamental details of the crime were completely wrong, Myers knew nothing about the murder and he simply lied about McMillian.  McMillian’s file eventually made its way onto Stevenson’s legal advocacy desk.

“This was not a hard case to figure out.  It was clear…” Stevenson said.

While appeals wound their way through the system, Stevenson invited 60 Minutes to take a look at the case.  Ed Bradley anchored the 18-minute story that aired in 1992.  It was a devastating critical dissection of the injustice done to McMillian.  And like the pro-conviction press in the Groveland case, the pro-conviction press in Alabama lashed out.  They wrote their own stories that focused on the alleged prejudice that CBS had against Alabama.  They completely avoided the very real treatment of a man who was living a nightmare on death row.

The District Attorney Tommy Chapman told the Mobile Press-Register that the wrongful conviction piece on 60 Minutes was “horrible journalism” and a “disgrace”.

“He’s had his day in court.  I don’t believe there has been any…misconduct…I don’t believe anyone has proved it,” the prosecutor said.  The headline in one paper read:  Officials Say 60 Minutes Account Biased.

The Alabama appeals court disagreed, they voted unanimously in 1993 to vacate the conviction.  He was never retried, without Myers’ accusations there was no evidence.  After 6 years, McMillian was released from death row.  Even then, as is common, the sheriff, prosecutor, and the press clung to their narrative and refused to acknowledge any injustice.

Stevenson said, “…I never got a call from any reporter at the Monroe Journal the entire time I was working on that case…The only time I was asked a question…was on the day Walter got released…Who killed Ronda Morrison if Walter McMillian didn’t?”

That question is still unanswered.  Though it was initially described by the media, and testified to in court by police officers, as “an apparent robbery”, details leaked out years later that Morrison’s clothing was unbuttoned suggesting an attempted sexual assault.

Walter McMillian died in 2013.

“You absolutely cannot rely on one side as a source of credible information.  You have to assume that things being told to you are not true until you test them…when stories are very comfortable and…convenient that’s when you need…to start asking tough questions,” Stevenson said. 

KIRK BLOODSWORTH

Hal Davis, a crime and justice editor with the St. Paul Pioneer Press believes the media “ought to be accurate and factual.  We ought to try our best to ascertain the facts of a case…”

Davis, who has had a long career as a journalist with the UPI, the New York Post, Bloomberg News, the National Law Journal, and the Dayton Daily News, as well as Pioneer Press, knows all too well that press coverage skews toward the prosecution.

“One of the problems is that the criminal complaint…provides the first detailed narrative…if no defense lawyer is willing to talk to the media…the narrative is pretty much controlled by the prosecutor and that can help shape public opinion.  That’s a lot of weight on one side of the scale before the defense even starts,” Davis said.

It’s the Catch-22 of our system.  Jon Gould, the American University law professor and wrongful conviction expert explains, “The prosecution and police set the narrative…[the defense’s] job is to figure out what the prosecutor has, then make a defense…”

The press could try poking more holes in questionable cases.

“In that sense, journalists can play a similar role to investigators, but to expect the press to be out in front…is not necessarily realistic…” Gould said.

“It takes an act of strong will to ponder alternative theories when the prosecutor is presenting one that seems plausible.  But if we’re doing our job, every so often we’ll find holes…” Davis said.

In 1984, the body of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton was found in the woods near her apartment complex in Rosedale, Maryland.  She had been raped and bludgeoned to death.  Other children saw the girl with a tall, thin man.  The next day, the Baltimore Sun ran an article that said, No Solid Leads Found.

bloodsworthLess than a month later, Kirk Bloodsworth (above), 24, was arrested.  It was plastered on the front page.  The story said he was living two miles from the victim’s home and he was arrested without incident.  The story had a congratulatory, guilty tone.  The Sun said a police spokesman “credited a police sketch…anonymous phone tips, and a psychological profile…as key ingredients in the arrest.”  The story went on to mention a woman who saw the sketch ran in the newspaper, who tipped police off to Bloodsworth.

A side story explained the “science” of psychological profiles prepared by the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit.  Authorities did not reveal the profile, only commenting that “certain” characteristics identified Bloodsworth.  The story noted that profiles rely on “specific data about a murder, the crime scene, and the manner in which a victim was killed…they analyze photographs of the crime scene and autopsy reports as well as develop their own portrait of the victim.”

FBI profiles had become popular in the media in the 1980s.  Many local detectives from all over the country attended seminars from the “Mind Hunter” FBI special agent John Douglas.  An FBI agent told the Sun, “The Hamilton case is probably the most profilable case we’ve handled in a long, long time…there is a great degree of psychopathy, which leads to profitability.”  The story ended with an ignored quote from FBI agent Henry Hanburger,

“It’s not anything which is scientific fact.  It’s really a process of educated guessing that is an art form.”

A year before Hamilton was murdered, Sam Bowerman, a Baltimore County detective, was selected to go through the profiling training at Quantico.  His training was reported by the media at the time.  The Sun reported that Bowerman created a “word picture of a man who had been dominated all his life by women and who had repressed his rage until…the pressure cooker boiled over.”  The story did not reveal any contents of the psychological profile, but told the public that Kirk Bloodsworth was a man who appeared on the outside to be nonviolent, but was in fact a very dangerous individual on the inside.  The story continued, “Others familiar with the case said that after Bloodsworth was arrested, the profile was found to give an uncanny description of the man, both physically and psychologically…he’s calculating, cunning, and a human predator…”

In March, two months before the story was published, Bloodsworth was convicted, despite a lack of any direct evidence.  Seven defense witnesses told the jury that Bloodsworth was elsewhere when the murder occurred, but five prosecution witnesses placed him near the scene, including two children.  The jurors picked the prosecution witnesses telling the Sun, an 11-year-old’s testimony was “the clincher.”  The prosecutor, Robert Lazzaro, said that the killing was “an act of opportunity, of frustration, and bottled up rage…”

Lazzaro’s trial strategy was summarized by the media as: “the prosecutor had contended that while Bloodsworth had no history of violence, he had been dominated by women…his mother, his wife, and his mother-in-law, and had always repressed his hostility until…he lured Dawn into the woods and killed her as a symbol of all females.”

Bloodsworth was sentenced to death.  In 1986, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial because prosecutors withheld evidence of an alternative suspect.  The media continued on its Bloodsworth-profile narrative and Bloodsworth was convicted at his second trial in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison.  In 1993, he was ruled out by a DNA test done on semen found at the scene.  He was freed.  10 years later, the true killer was identified.

Kimberly Shay Ruffner, a known pedophile and rapist, at the time of Dawn’s murder.  He pled guilty in 2004 and was sentenced to life in prison.

Bloodsworth is the director of advocacy at Witness to Innocence, a non-profit.  He said that the media became enamored with the new “science” of FBI profiling.

“You might as well go see a fortune-teller,” Bloodsworth said, “the brush strokes are so broad that you could make it fit me and just about any other 23-year-old man alive…I could probably take that profile or any profile ever written and match it up to somebody…it’s not a crystal ball or a lens into the truth.”

Bloodsworth and author Tim Junkin revealed parts of the 7 1/2 page profile of Hamilton’s killer in a book about the case, “although he fantasized a great deal about indulging in sexual relationships with mature, physically developed women…he is inadequate and lacks confidence…therefore his overt behavior would involve much younger, impressionable females, or perhaps [vulnerable] older women…it is quite probable that he was brought up under the auspices of an overbearing mother…who caused him great anxiety…we believe that when he feels safe from detection…and the reliving of this crime no longer constitutes sufficient relief, he will strike again.”

Bloodsworth said that the profile led to tunnel vision that caused the authorities not to see him as a suspect, but as the killer.  The Sun and other media outlets followed suit.  Most stories had the subtext, like in most high-profile cases, of a presumption of guilt and the few biographical details provided about Bloodsworth were intended to discredit him, including a separation from his wife, his marijuana usage, and the fact he was a temporary worker.  Positive facts, such as his military service, were rarely mentioned.

“Things that should have been red flags were ignored,” he said.  The most glaring example is the fact that witnesses described the man seen with the girl as skinny and blond.  Bloodsworth was large with red hair.

“The whole thing was totally biased toward the state.  They did it perfectly,” Bloodsworth said.

Bloodsworth said he has never heard a reporter acknowledge their culpability,

“They wrote what they wrote.  I don’t hate them.  I just think they were trying to sell newspapers…make the public feel better…I do wish they had asked a few more questions.  They made it really easy for the prosecutor…”

Read the case study here:  The Media’s Role in Wrongful Convictions:  How Mob Journalism and Media Tunnel Vision Turn Journalists Into Tools of the Prosecution.

INTRODUCTION FROM THE CRIME REPORT:  The media has won deserved credit for its role in exposing wrongful convictions. But there are many examples of compliant coverage of prosecutors and law enforcement authorities who rush to convict the innocent on flimsy or phony evidence.  David Krajicek, a co-founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, writes that each of the cases offers critical lessons for journalists—and the public—of the perils of “mob journalism” and media tunnel vision.

RELATED:  The U.S. Media Helped Keep Debra Milke on Death Row For 20 Years

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Comments
  1. The media were unhelpful (to say the least) in the Lindy Chamberlain and Duke lacrosse cases. With respect to the latter case, there was an excellent analysis of the rush to judgment written by Rachel Smolkin (“Justice Delayed”) published in the American Journalism Review in August/September of 2007.

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