Friday, October 06, 2006
Trial by Media
It’s an old game, kinda nasty, but it gets the job done. A cop is dispatched to investigate a crime, but struggles to gather enough evidence to convince a prosecutor that a case should be presented in court. The cop grinds away at this task for months, but ultimately, he's not sure if he's got what he needs. Fortunately for him, there is always another route well known to many black men: Trial By Media.
The cop calls up a reporter at the local paper. He tells the drooling scribe that he’s got a hot scoop about a black man convicted in one of the most notorious crimes in state history. He drips out a few salacious details about a new allegation. The writer dutifully publishes the factually inaccurate "scoop" that charges will be filed in the case the next day. By the time the prosecutor receives this evidence, the train of media spin has gone into overdrive. A columnist adds his two cents to the mix, further inflaming public sentiment against the suspect. The Associated Press picks up the story. Local television jumps into the mix, by then the public is hungry for blood. Won't this prosecutor, who is elected by the public, oblige them?
In one phone call, this cop has accomplished what the Algerian philosopher Althusser might describe as media being used as an "ideological state apparatus." We would describe it more plainly: The media has been chumped. The prosecutor has been chumped. And sadly, so has the integrity of the justice system.
What is so surprising about this latest round of drama swirling around Kofi "Debo" Ajabu, who is also the subject of the “Boy Born Friday” chapter in DT, is not that this game is being played. (As readers of our book will learn, Indiana officials played it relentlessly throughout the original 1995 Ajabu trial.) What’s surprising is how clumsy this particular cop, Indiana State Police detective Bob May, has played it. A T-shirt was covering the face of the attacker? He has not found the weapon, but he is certain it was a sock-covered lock? Kofi Ajabu attacked a guard because...the guard treats everyone fairly? After four months you still have not found a witness who saw Ajabu commit this crime?
We first heard about these allegations this summer and we blogged about it here when things appeared to come to a head. Since then, we’ve been writing letter after letter to Indiana officials asking for basic information about the allegations but were never given the requested documentation. We will be watching closely to see how this whole thing plays out. If any of these "objective" journalists bothered to call the Ajabu family, as we did, they would learn that they are certain the evidence will eventually prove their son's innocence and that they only want the legal process be allowed to run its course without prejudice. Is that too much to ask?