Now that Mike Peterson has been locked away behind the walls of the Nash Correctional Center, the months-long media mania that marked his trial is finally winding down. The pundits have written their post-scripts, and the television stations are off in search of the next grisly murder, fire or weather event to titillate the masses.
It's not hard to understand the obsession with Peterson. Americans love a good spectacle, whether on the playing fields, the battlefields or in the courtroom. Celebrity murder trials always inspire the media to pitch their circus tents, and the prospect of seeing a member of the privileged class go down in flames appeals to our baser instincts, as Melinda Ruley so eloquently described in these pages ("Murder, We Hoped," Sept. 24). The sideshow battle of wits and egos between the homespun district attorney and the flamboyant defense lawyer (who shall, for once, remain nameless) added intrigue to the mix.
The volumes of ink and videotape devoted to Peterson, however, were in the end grossly excessive. Both The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun averaged more than a story a day once the trial kicked into gear, and the TV cameras whirred non-stop beginning in April. The Independent was not above this fray, delivering the latest edgy takes on Mike and the gang week after week. The coverage occasionally smacked of desperation, reporters with filing mandates resorting to descriptions of the participants' wardrobes or courthouse decor. On slow days, the stories were heavy on the recap and could have been boiled down to a single sentence: "Nothing much happened today."
The voyeurs who gorged on every development, no matter how insignificant, may have felt somehow invested in the outcome. But the trial and conviction had little import in the arena of criminal justice. It didn't change the fundamental proposition that wealthy defendants who can hire hotshot lawyers stand a much better chance of getting off than the indigent who must rely on the crapshoot of court-appointed counsel. The wrangling over the admissibility of such evidence as the parallel death of Peterson's German friend and contact with an ersatz male escort may make for juicy appeal opportunities, but the protagonists broke no new legal ground and addressed few compelling social issues. That the case was an aberration in the first place, the key to its very attraction, means that no ripples will attend its wake.
The overabundance of Peterson prose and infinite variations of his tortured visage, an image imprinted in the brains of even those poor souls who tried their best to avoid the trial altogether, can be justified in a host of ways. Once the feeding frenzy begins, no news outlet can afford to be left behind to suffer potential declines in audience, which competitors will mercilessly exploit. Trials are unpredictable, and the need to have a reporter present at all times to record the dramatic moments also yields filler when the hours drag. And, to float an old if debatable rationale, the media just gives people what they want.
Journalistically, though, it's harder to defend. Satiating the limitless public appetite for high-test scandal may make good business sense, and it would be hard to argue that any particular harm resulted from the barrage. But television news time is limited and the number of pages in a newspaper is tightly controlled, so the Peterson coverage came at the expense of other stories that were relegated to the back pages or squeezed out of the picture entirely.
No one in the Triangle heard anything about the Asheville murder trial of Linda Evans, which concluded with a hung jury four days after Peterson got life. Evans was charged with killing her on-again, off-again boyfriend after he allegedly raped her. The defense claimed that Evans, who was repeatedly battered by the boyfriend over the course of their stormy seven-year relationship and had won two restraining orders against him, acted in self-defense. Prosecutors had sought a conviction for first-degree murder, saying that an unprovoked Evans lured the victim to her home and then shot him, reloading her pistol after firing two rounds and then finishing him off.
The case was rife with compelling characters and the kinds of twists and turns that make a great yarn. Evans refused a plea to second-degree murder before the trial began. The lawyers presented conflicting evidence about whether the sex was forced or consensual. Supporters of Evans, led by a local rape crisis group, packed the courtroom. The judge at first refused to let the jury consider a manslaughter verdict, then changed his mind. Though the jurors reported a hopeless deadlock, the judge kept them sequestered until 11 p.m. on a Friday night, demanding a verdict. Eleven jurors were eventually persuaded to convict Evans for manslaughter, but a holdout refused to budge from a not-guilty position. Prosecutors have vowed to retry the case in December.
The trial lasted only a week--neither the defense attorneys nor the prosecutors had blank checks to call a parade of expert witnesses or dig up sordid details of the accused's past--and generated but three absurdly brief stories in the Asheville Citizen-Times. But the implications of the trial are sweeping, as have past murder trials involving battered women. Their resolution can reveal much about the evolution of attitudes toward domestic violence in a given community.
One might assume that the Evans trial presented the media with a golden opportunity to delve into important issues in the context of a sensational crime. But Evans and her boyfriend weren't novelists, nor had they run for mayor, nor were either of them wealthy socialites who lived in a fancy neighborhood and threw lavish parties. He was a mechanic; if she had a job, it wasn't mentioned in the accounts. There's not much entertainment value in poor folks killing each other.
Murder is an everyday event, and it would not be reasonable to expect the Triangle media to devote resources to trials in Asheville, Elizabeth City or Charlotte when we have plenty of our own to worry about. But the disproportionate media obsession with Peterson contrasts with local examples as well. When Larry Champion went to trial in June for stabbing his wife to death in 1998, The N&O was the only news outlet to report on the proceedings, with three stories totaling fewer than 1,000 words. On its face, the case offered little of interest: Everyone agreed that Champion had committed the crime, and the trial lasted a mere three days. The jury took five hours to deliver a life sentence.
But what occurred in the interval between the 1998 murder and the trial offered plenty of angles for the media. Champion, who has a 45 IQ, was initially declared incompetent to stand trial and spent four years in Dorothea Dix. Doctors at Dix decided last year that he had regained possession of his faculties and was well enough to stand trial, and prosecutors initially stated they would seek the death penalty, reversing themselves shortly before trial. Given that mental retardation and mental illness have become high-profile criminal justice issues, the Champion case could have raised important public policy questions--it's interesting to note that Forsyth County prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty in the case of another man recently discharged from Dix after years of institutionalization. But with Peterson dominating the headlines, Champion got lost in the shuffle.
As this column goes to press, Armando Ortez is on trial for his life in Wake County. A Mexican immigrant charged with killing the Vietnamese owner of a coin-op laundry, Ortez says that two other men (both on the lam) did the killing. Disputes over the surprise appearance of a jailhouse snitch and the translation of Ortez's statements to police combine with other elements to make this an important case. But the coverage has again been sparse, with little analysis beyond superficial blow-by-blow accounts.
Alan Gell will be tried for murder in February. It'll be the second go-round for Gell, the former death-row inmate who won a new trial in part because prosecutors in the Attorney General's office withheld important evidence from the defense. Though Gell is just an average Joe with no sexy past or playboy lifestyle to fascinate the Fourth Estate, the magnitude of his case dwarfs that of Peterson. It's not a stretch to say that the AG's office itself will be on trial, and by association the capital punishment system in North Carolina. Whether it will provide sufficient entertainment value to draw the media hordes remains to be seen.
Contact Burtman at email@example.com