Cosby, Ramsey Murders Show Depth of Media-Police Divide
LOS ANGELES — At the dusty hillside site where Ennis Cosby was killed early Jan. 16, media, mourners, and police continue to cross paths and cross purposes.
While detectives scour the nearby brush for clues, visitors kneel to lay flowers, and broadcasters use the backdrop for updates on the investigation.
As with other recent high-profile cases - the murder here of Nicole Brown Simpson and of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Colorado - the roadside scene highlights a fundamental and enduring clash between law-enforcement officials and the media.
Conflicts arise from the two competing agendas. Reporters chase down the details of a case in part to boost newspaper sales or television ratings, in part to satisfy the public's civil "right to know." Simultaneously, police pursue much of the same information but for a different end. They must quickly catch the fugitives and build a case that will stand up in court.
"The pressures on law enforcement from the early stages of a high-profile murder like [the Cosby case] are incredible," says Stan Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He cautions observers to recall the case of Richard Jewell, the Atlanta security guard who was pursued by the FBI but is now suing the bureau and several media organizations.
"If [police] wait too long, they run the risk that the perpetrators get away," says Mr. Goldman. "If they move too fast, they suffer the consequences of an erroneous rush to judgment."
In the light of several recent failures by the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to win convictions in high-profile cases, press and pundits alike are again asking: Can police and prosecutors sufficiently control their investigations to catch criminals and win conviction in a fair trial?"
The contamination of key evidence in the Simpson criminal case, for instance, and the loss of key witnesses who could not be used because they sold their stories to supermarket tabloids, both strongly undermined successful prosecution.
Encouraged by actor Bill Cosby, the father of Ennis Cosby, The Globe is offering a $200,000 reward and the National Enquirer is offering $100,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
"You can bet that the cautionary lessons from the Jewell and Simpson cases are not lost on the LAPD as they begin investigating the Cosby case," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law, Los Angeles. Noting that crime-scene officials took special care to go slowly, wear rubber gloves, and take plaster casts of footprints at the scene, Pugsley says: "They are trying extra hard to dot every 'i' and cross every 't'."
As was true in the Simpson criminal trial, the Cosby case underlines the necessity of keeping the crime scene, witnesses, and possible evidence sufficiently under control to avoid compromising later prosecutions. In the Simpson case, media footage of evidence-gathering was later used in court to trip up prosecutors. Many analysts feel the videotape that showed investigators violating standard department procedures is what eventually undid the prosecution case against Simpson.
The problem in high-profile cases is that every bit of information becomes so valuable that media organizations begin "shadow" investigations of their own, often paying key witnesses for their stories. The press use police for scoops. The police may use the media to leak information for their own purposes.
"In any case involving a celebrity, the number of people who have knowledge that is either substantial or peripheral is much greater," adds Butler Shaffer, professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law. "That can begin a media feeding frenzy that multiplies the problem of information flow."
In the JonBenet Ramsey case involving the child beauty queen who was found strangled in the basement of her home, the media attention may have jeopardized future criminal proceedings, analysts say, because crime scene photos were sold to and published in a supermarket tabloid. Their publishing reveals clues about the crime scene that may allow a killer to destroy or explain evidence that could otherwise lead to his later arrest and conviction. It also makes it difficult to mount a fair trial. Under law, no "right" to privileged police evidence exists until public trial proceedings have begun. Many police officials say such publications are pandering to the prurient interest, going well beyond the public's right to know.
"The public's desire to know is not the same as its need to know," says Bruce Goodman, police chief in Louisville, Colo. "It can be very distracting. Now you have to manage the media as well as the investigation. It just adds to your difficulties."
Others say police problems are compounded when media outlets think only of ratings or selling papers. "The media have come to use the language of the First Amendment to masquerade behind, concealing the real intent of pandering to voyeurism and ghoulishness," says Michael Tracey, director of the Center for Mass Media Research in Boulder, Colo. Decrying the exhaustive coverage of the Ramsey case, he says: "A decently modest coverage ... would have sufficed. But tragically, it has become a form of entertainment."
In Boulder, police have been tight-lipped about the murder investigation. The LAPD is also likely to be more circumspect in controlling information. Leaks were standard practice early in the Simpson investigation as a way of keeping the public assured that the investigation was proceeding. But such tactics backfired in court, when defense attorneys were able to convince jurors that the leaks were evidence of a police plan to systematically follow only the evidence that incriminated Simpson and neglect other theori*
r Jillian Lloyd in Boulder, Colo., contributed to this report.