In the small State of Louisiana (around 4.5 million inhabitants), not a week goes by without at least one rape (or murder or any other criminal) case being discussed in the media – mostly one-sided. One reads headlines as, for instance, „Girl/ woman brutally raped,“ rapist „arrested,“ „indicted,“ „convicted,“ „faces life sentence,“ or „sentenced to life.“ Each time, the full name (and often also a photo) of the suspect is disclosed from day one, although he has not been convicted yet. An arrest in the USA is sufficient to ruin your life forever, no matter whether or not you are guilty, indeed. Suddenly, you have a criminal record and the whole world can read about it on the internet.
On the other hand, there are serial rapists, who may never be caught. One of those was Dennis Rabbitt for almost three decades. Rabbitt, dubbed the “South Side Rapist”, is a white native of St. Louis, Missouri, the “good guy” from the neighborhood, but also a pathological, extraordinary sex offender. He began raping at the age of 17 in the early 1970s and had never been caught until February 28, 1999. He is also an excellent burglar. He realizes opportunities as e.g. open windows immediately. And he used to observe his potential female prey for some time before he eventually entered their homes to rape them at night. He wore socks over his hands and usually forced his victims to bath or shower after the assaults. The age of his more than 100 victims ranges from 14 through 82.
Rabbitt was not indicted, tried and convicted of any sexual assaults committed in Southern Nevada. The statute of limitations for those crimes had run out before he was arrested in New Mexico. For a small part of his crimes, he is serving 6 life sentences in Missouri and will not be eligible for parole for 90 years.
How many innocent men have been in prison for rapes people like Dennis N. Rabbitt did? What is the role of the media here? Some of the problems are:
- Unfortunately, sensation sells better than quality.
- The fatal side effect of sensationalism (the opposite of good journalism) is premature reporting.
- Sensation increases the voyeurism of its consumers at a possibly innocent person’s expense. The press and the media do have an ethical responsibility to respect human rights.
- Because many facts are not investigated, known or proven yet, a story at an early point of time provides room for gossip and speculation.
- Law enforcement (prosecutors, sheriffs and judges are elected politicians in the USA!) is under pressure to quickly get someone convicted of the crime,which can cause mistakes, misconduct and corruption.
- Freeloaders and red herrings might complicate a classic truth seeking investigation.
Inspirational source: State of Nevada v. Curtis Downing at http://cases.iippi.org/curtis-lundy-downing/.
On the IIPPI Forum, there is a thread about ethical journalism, especially when it comes to reporting on rape. Amazing how well it matches with the detailed book about Vincent Simmons’ case and the old one-sided stories in the press.
Also see “Giving Rise to Prejudice.”
Although no rape or murder case, this is a local example from Avoyelles Parish how irresponsible the revelation of full names of merely arrested people by the press is: “Man ‘wants life back’ after Grand Jury dismisses charges” by the Avoyelles Today.
This might interest you as well: USA: Almost 50% of all prisoners worldwide are in the “Land of the Free” . Louisiana alone is the prison “nation” number one.
How Germany does Prison – Americans on a mind-boggling incarceration road trip. (from June 16th through June 21st 2015)
Just one example of racial disparity in Louisiana