With so many opportunities to exclude evidence, and so few ways to get it admitted, it is only the most unlucky offenders who ever see the inside of a courtroom. This terrible reality is what many journalists and defense attorneys call the genius of our system, though, of course, it doesn’t feel that way when it is your daughter or wife begging for her life.
Michael King was on the road to being lucky until his victim, Denise Lee, set out to prove that he was committing a terrible crime. Lee, a twenty-one year old who had been kidnapped in front of her two infant boys, then brutalized, raped, and informed that she was going to be murdered by King, somehow possessed the composure to hide her ring in his car so that police would find it there. She also opened King’s cell phone and called 911 while trying to engage him in a conversation that would lead police to his car.
Denise Lee’s father was a police officer, so she probably knew how difficult it would be to get evidence of her own impending murder admitted into a courtroom. In essence, she spent the last hours of her life trying to overcome the games defense attorneys would later play with her death.
Thanks to Denise Lee’s bravery, Michael King entered the courtroom with virtually no chance of being acquitted. But in our warped system of criminal justice, the defense attorneys still had games to play and tax dollars to burn — something they seize with impunity whenever a conviction is not really in doubt. So what should have been a brief and straightforward trial threatened to become a costly spectacle, just as the Brian Nichols trial was a spectacle: an opportunity for defense attorneys to manipulate the system while shrilly claiming to be defending higher principles.
Defense attorneys get away with this behavior largely because they get a free pass from their fans in the press box, who do not even feign objectivity.
During the King trial, a reporter for the Sarasota Herald Tribune stooped to posting mash notes about courthouse “sightings” of his favorite defense attorney on the trial blog, as if he were attending a rock concert, rather than the trial for the rape and murder of a young mother. That’s simply grotesque. That undermines the credibility of the newspaper.
But it isn’t unusual. Defense bias is pervasive in some newsrooms, the Sarasota Herald Tribune being one. While other local papers stuck to reporting the details of the King trial, the Tribune busied itself manufacturing an ornate case for the defense, presenting their tactics and arguments thinly disguised as news stories.
Thus, jury selection was covered via a series of articles questioning when, or if, jurors can ever possibly be objective. Before the trial even started, the Trib’s favorite defense experts were already using the paper to paint a picture of King as the victim of an unfair system.
“Attorneys to Look for Internet Bias in Lee Case,” one headline blared:
Community outrage over the abduction, rape and murder of North Port mother Denise Lee simmered for months on online bulletin boards and chatrooms.
Now, attorneys for the man charged with Lee’s murder are going to ask potential jurors if they used the Internet to discuss the crime. . .
“They need to ask if the guy has a Facebook page, if he Twitters, if he has a Web name he uses,” said Art Patterson, a jury consultant and social psychologist based in Sarasota. “We sure want to know, because people say things in there they’d never admit in court.”
The answers could help decide who sits on the jury, and whether the case remains in Sarasota County. . .
In court papers filed this week, King’s attorneys argue that media coverage and strong reaction to the crime online have added to an atmosphere that makes it impossible for him to get a fair trial here.
Well, of course jury consultants for the defense want to know these things. Their job is to put as many people as possible on the jury who are biased towards the defense. That type of juror bias is not included in the article. The reporter only worries about jurors who express pro-conviction sentiments. He quotes not one, but two experts echoing his worry.
One of the “experts” is the subject of the mash note mentioned above.
The reporter is the mash note’s author.
In another Herald Tribune article about jury selection in the King trial, another defense attorney is given front-page license to scold the public for their presumed inability to be as fair as — say — defense attorneys:
[J]urors already have a hard time with the idea that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, defense attorney Betsy Young said. “They’re required to walk in saying, there’s an innocent man sitting there,” Young said.
Actually, that is not true. Jurors are not required to walk into the courtroom believing a defendant is innocent. Jurors are required to suspend their judgment of the defendant’s innocence or guilt, listen to the evidence, then draw conclusions based only on that evidence. To allege that jurors must know nothing in order to be fair is to imply that no defendant could possibly get a fair trial.
The Tribune let this wild misrepresentation stand as “reporting.”
After the trial was over, and the jury took all of half of an afternoon to find Michael King guilty of the crime for which he was obviously guilty, the Trib mounted its soapbox for the defense again. This time, their goal was to help create the impression that Michael King was incompetent. They did so with long, drawn-out articles detailing every aspect of the defense’s case for incompetence but barely mentioning the prosecution’s challenges to these claims.
This “evidence” supporting King’s alleged incompetence is bizarre:
Defense attorneys will stress a different side of King that jurors heard all this week during the penalty phase: a man whose childhood sledding injury at age 6 set up a lifetime of diminished mental capacity. King was described as a good father of a 13-year-old son, a good boyfriend and a good plumber, whose buzzing headaches and “zoning out” increased along with the stress of losing his girlfriend and house. . .
Rodney King said he attributed virtually all of his brother’s problems, including seeing things that were not there, going into a trance-like state, getting lost while driving and hearing buzzing in his head, to a head injury Michael King suffered during a sledding accident as a child. . .
James King said his son had learning problems, especially with spelling and math. He recalled one time when Michael King asked for help in writing out numbers on a check and had to ask his then 11-year-old son for help.
[M]uch of Tuesday’s testimony came from Dr. Joseph Wu, an expert brought in by the defense who said King’s suffered a brain injury as a child that left him less able to follow society’s rules. People with similar injuries to their frontal lobes have trouble separating fantasy from reality, Wu said, and tend to be paranoid and act out under stress. King was 6 years old when he was injured. Riding a sled being pulled by a snowmobile, his head slammed into a big wooden beam. His brothers said the snowmobile was going between 40 mph and 80 mph. In court, Wu suggested a link between the head blow and statements from his brothers about King’s odd behavior. King once acted out a scene from a Bugs Bunny cartoon with a real bow and arrow, Wu said. As a teenager, he acted out a scene from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with a real chainsaw, coming within five feet of family members with it.
To summarize: Michael King had ringing in his ears. He had a weird disorder that enabled him to function well enough to finish school and marry and buy a house and run a business and be “a good father” but also made him snap and rape and torture and kill a total stranger one day, 30 years after falling off a sled.
Curiously, this is the only aspect of the case that the Sarasota Herald Tribune allowed to stand without contradictory input from “experts.”
During the jury selection process, the paper solicited outside defense experts and jury consultants to weigh in on every aspect of the (read: poor) job the court was doing in selecting the jury. During the trial, reporters let defense experts pose questions regarding the viability of the evidence (prosecution evidence, that is). During sentencing, they solicited ministers and academicians to weigh in solemnly on everything from the psychological impact of choosing a death sentence to the metaphysical implications of turning one’s back on the religiously ordained quality of mercy (more on that charming theme tomorrow).
All other parts of the trial were subjected to subversive, outsider debate in the news part of the newspaper’s pages, but some sleazy defense witness waving meaningless brain-wave pictures at a disbelieving jury was above reproach?
They couldn’t find a single doctor or shrink or press-hungry tenured faculty member or trial-expert-for-pay-in-the-yellow-pages to similarly question the judgment of Doctor Wu?
Of course, merely reporting defense arguments is reporting, and the articles detailing Michael King’s incompetence defense also include details of what Denise Lee suffered. But what they exclude is telling: the reporters carefully and selectively skirt the prosecution’s direct refutation of King’s incompetence claim.
Why does this matter? By choosing to do this, the paper creates an impression of two victims — Lee and King — rather than one victim and one inhumane predator who is entirely responsible for gratuitously destroying her.
It’s a simulacrum of the defense strategy: if you cannot possibly deny that there is one victim in the room, pretend there are two. It has no place anywhere in a newspaper, except perhaps on the opinion page, where the writer must at least own up to promoting such views.
Tomorrow: The Perils of Being a Sarasota Juror