An interesting article by Anne Blythe appeared in the March 2, 2010 edition of the News & Observer titled, “Media protest call for reports on Carson case.” It states how media companies across the state of North Carolina are fighting attempts by federal defense attorneys to have media outlets in North Carolina hand over copies of everything published about the Eve Carson homicide case. The defense contends that media in the state have saturated the public with such adverse publicity against Carson’s accused killer, Demario Atwater, that it would be impossible for him to get a fair trial within the state. They are seeking to have the federal capital murder trial held in the neighboring state of Virginia.
Sixty news organizations have been subpoenaed by the defense to produce copies of all related newspaper articles, letters and editorials, and copies of TV and radio broadcasts. In response to the request, news organizations teamed up to quash the subpoena. Raleigh attorney Amanda Martin, representing the News & Observer argues that it would be unduly burdensome and expensive to comply, despite the fact that a man is facing a death penalty if convicted. Obviously, the media’s convenience and bottom line are more important than whether or not a man, who is fighting for his life, has the benefit of a fair trial.
What makes this issue so pitifully hypocritical is the fact that many media sources, such as the News & Observer, frequently use the subpoena to obtain information that North Carolina state agencies arbitrarily withhold (against the law) in order to stonewall a media investigation. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, how does the media respond when they are subpoenaed by the defense in a capital murder case? They whine about the inconvenience of a reduced staff and hardships in the current economic times… and they do so to stonewall Atwater’s defense team in the federal case. But, that is not the overriding reason. In my opinion, the media are trying to dispel any notion that their reporting on the Carson case was in any way, shape, or form, biased. But it was.
For example the media constantly showed images from the ATM camera depicting the defendants withdrawing cash, allegedly using Eve Carson’s bank card. Evidence against the defendants in the Carson case is repeatedly played across television screens throughout the state. This is a prime example of the prosecution trying a case in the media. Only this time, they’re being called on it by competent federal defenders. Although former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong was accused of trying the Duke Lacrosse case in the media, the fact is that he did not. To call unidentified perpetrators in an alleged gang-like sexual assault “hooligans” is a far cry from trying the case in the media. Fact is, that Mr. Nifong never presented his case before the media, a trial was never held, and the public is, therefore, unaware of the evidence supporting the prosecution’s case against the defendants. It was the defense teams in the Duke Lacrosse case that held press conferences to release lab results, to display photographs taken at the Duke Lacrosse party, and to present other information favorable to their clients. However, the media has steadfastly represented Mr. Nifong as being the one trying his case in the court of public opinion… not the Duke Lacrosse defense team.
Of course, the media in North Carolina has been biased in its reporting on the Carson case, and a change of venue should be granted to assure that justice is served. A change of venue was not granted by Wilson Judge Milton Fitch in the case of James Arthur Johnson. Although Johnson’s attorneys filed a motion to have the case moved from the city of Wilson (racially divided due to the irresponsible actions of the local law enforcement, prosecutors, and media), it was denied by Fitch without explanation. This unreasonable action by the judge was an obvious harbinger of things to come, and most likely prompted defendant Johnson to accept an Alford plea for the charge of misprision of felony (not reporting knowledge of a crime… although he did, but his three day delay in doing so was not fast enough).
Nowhere is media bias more blatant than in the attacks against Mike Nifong, and they began in the early stages of the Duke Lacrosse case. WTVD ABC-11 News was instrumental in laying groundwork for a so-called motive for Mr. Nifong’s prosecution of the Duke Lacrosse case… the ridiculous claim that he pursued the prosecution for political gain in order to win the election for Durham district attorney. The rigged poll they used stated that Nifong was in a virtual tie with Freda Black, and that a large black turnout favored Mr. Nifong. It failed to mention that blacks represented only 38% of the registered voters and that whites represented 56 % of registered voters for that primary. It defies credulity to entertain the belief that Mr. Nifong would prosecute a case that was extremely unpopular in order to win a primary race. Yet, the media put it out there, and Mr. Nifong’s detractors used it.
One of the biggest Jedi mind-tricks played on the public by the media, however, has to do with their embracing the April 11, 2007 “Innocent Promulgation” by Attorney General Roy Cooper. They universally used it as a basis to proclaim the three Duke defendants as “innocent,” “falsely accused,” “wrongly accused,” “not guilty,” “exonerated,” “cleared of criminal charges,” etc. However, the use of these adjectives to describe the Duke Lacrosse defendants is legally, technically, and factually wrong! The attorney general does not have the legal authority to make such pronouncements of “guilt,” “non-guilt,” or “innocence.” Gregory F. Taylor, who was found not guilty by a three judge panel referred by the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, is, on the other hand, “innocent,” or “not guilty,” and terms such as “exonerated” and “cleared” are appropriate and applicable.
MSNBC’s senior legal analyst Susan Filan has fabricated a statement about Mr. Nifong, and CBS has written headlines that falsely put words in Mr. Nifong’s mouth. Just a few of the more egregious examples of biased reporting by North Carolina media.
At least Demario Atwater is getting what appears to be competent representation by his defense attorneys in his federal case. That cannot be said about the representation Mr. Nifong received before the North Carolina State Bar. Unfair media bias against Mr. Nifong should have been brought to the fore in his defense against the trumped up ethics charges. His attorneys (David Freedman and Dudley Witt from Winston-Salem) seemed more dedicated to appeasing the unregulated North Carolina State Bar and the media than presenting an aggressive no-holds-barred defense of their unjustly disparaged client.