How Much Do We Need to Know?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In 1990, a man dubbed the Gainesville Ripper raped, murdered, and mutilated five college age women in the town of Gainesville, Florida. 17 year old Sonja Larson was one of those women. At some point during the investigation, photos of the crime scenes where the young women were found began to be questioned. Media lawyer Tom Julin, argued for the release of crime scene photos, claiming that in order to maintain the integrity of an open court system, the public has a right to see information such as this.

Wait... wait... this story is over ten years old? Or did I just hear it? The situation sounds familiar.

Recent debate regarding the release of a video tape portraying SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau being attacked by a killer whale, and attempts by a reporter for Hustler magazine to obtain crime scene photos of murder victim Meredith Emerson, have brought older media rights cases to the front line again. They have also raised very important questions for both journalists and media consumers: How much, exactly, does the public need to know?

The terms "sealed documents" and "gag order" have been thrown around much more frequently in the past few years. Due to vast amounts of instantaneous information we have access to, court officials have had to issue these in order to protect both plaintiff and defendant during the proceedings. How is a person going to have a fair trial with photographs floating around showing the criminal acts? Casey Anthony is a perfect example; images showing her partying during the time her two year old child was missing were splashed over the Internet and other sources of news even before her trial began. This was obviously damaging to her defense case, and advantageous for the prosecution. When the trial out of the court room into our living rooms, the information becomes subject to public judgement. Can a person be convicted even before the trial begins?

Ada Larson, mother of murder victim Sonja, described to CNN how devastated she would have been if crime scene photos of her daughter's mutilated body had been flashed over the papers and on the news.

"We did not want our loved ones to be put out there in the scenes where they were found..." she stated regarding the case.

In the Gainesville trial, the judge involved ruled that the media and public could see the 700 crime scene photos, but no copies could be made. This action helped to prevent the photos from being republished time and time again.

Media representatives state that their goal is not to cause harm to the victims or their families, but they also say the public interest regarding these cases has to be respected as well. Rachel Fugate, a media attorney in the state of Florida, states that part of the media's responsibility is to provide verification of facts; this is especially important in situations where there are multiple reports and stories racing through the channels. She does understand, however, that the families of victims need to be respected.

"We are not advocating that the photographs be released or that they be published or broadcast in any manner," she said. "We want the opportunity to inspect."

Inspect, yes. But how far does inspection go? With everyone having cameras on their cell phones, is it truly possible to issue a gag order? A jury sees a crime scene photo and one member snaps a shot with his camera, and sends it to a friend, who sends it to a friend, and so on. Though the member of the jury ultimately may be charged with something, that image is still out there for all to see. Because, in today's world, we have access to everything we could ever want to see at our fingertips if you search hard enough for it.

Note my own experience writing this blog. I typed "Gainesville Ripper" into Google to just get some basic information on the case, and instantly was presented with several links to crime scene photos, and various other crime images, some of which had nothing to do with my search query. Try as we might, we can't protect ourselves from everything. Perhaps the public is served by having media view such images, but beyond that, I personally believe it is a great disservice to everyone involved if the images are released too broadly and splashed across the internet for all to see.


Leslie Hanson April 6, 2010 at 9:02 PM  

I blogger about this similar situation a few weeks ago. Georgia recently passed the Meredith Emerson memorial Privacy Act which is aimed to prevent gruesome crime scene phontos from being released to the public. I personally do not think that crimes scene photo are a need to the general public and could cause harm to the average person. But in the same breath know that preventing open records takes us several steps back in our society and the freedoms that many people fought for us to have.

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