Monday, August 28, 2006

Bombshell Backslide

Suddenly there is no prime suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey case. After a week-and-a-half of intense media coverage and speculation, Boulder DA Mary Lacy has dropped the arrest warrant against John Mark Karr. Numerous unsolicited alibis made many of us in the media immediately skeptical of his role in the case. But then he was brought to Boulder, many assumed it was because authorities possessed damning evidence. Tonight, that is simply not the case. So what can be said of the past eleven days? First consider what will be said in the coming days. The case against Karr is all but assuredly over. Unless there is a surprise piece of evidence, a colossal mistake was made not only by authorities but by those of us in the news media who thought this could be the end to a nearly ten-year-old case. Titillating, bizarre and overreaching…each of those words could be used in a sentence to describe how we covered this story. Though I think there was some reason behind the instant focus on an arrest. Bear in mind, no arrest had ever before been made in the case. And aside from the temptation to report what seemed to be a bombshell development, there were a lot of people who truly hoped this was the end – an idea certainly welcomed by those who hoped the intense media spotlight might – after a trial – be dimmed.

Competing Leads

Today was the sort of news day that sends major, major stories into competition with each other. For me the interest in this day began yesterday morning in Chicago where I had been attending the national Society of Professional Journalists conference. The day began with news of the plane crash in Lexington. Knowing Kentucky was a short six hour drive, I phoned ABC News Radio in New York to see if I could lend my services.

The network was already sending in a correspondent from Miami, an indication that despite the hurricane on approach toward the Gulf, the crash story could be equally as prominent. With other travel plans back to Missouri, I wasn’t sure which tine of the fork in the road I would take. After being put on standby by ABC I waited. Ultimately they said, “go ahead and return to Missouri, but if we decide to go into expanded coverage don’t be surprised if we call.” So began a six hour trip, albeit not the one I wanted to make.

Back to the idea of competing leads...LA-based ABC News correspondent Alex Stone, who’s covering the one-year Hurricane Katrina anniversary put it this way in a phone conversation with me: “it’s going to be one of those days where were saying ‘It’s the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, but first lets turn our attention to another hurricane that’s moving into the Gulf even as we speak.’” In the news business we sometimes refer to that sort of scenario as a delayed lead.

It was one of those types of days that make one wonder: when will it end?, before a sudden reminder that news is ubiquitous and never stops. Days, however, made up of a major disaster’s first anniversary; an approaching hurricane; a plane crash; a dropped high-profile murder case; wars and other tensions are hard to come by.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Big Development

I write this from Chicago and the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists, where I'm sure later today some of the dialogue will be about what makes news and whether certain stories should....stories like the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

The lead back in Colorado of course is the arrival of suspect John Mark Karr. And the fact he is there probably signifies something big. Colorado authorities only have 48 hours to charge him, so if his being in Colorado suggests anything, it's that Boulder DA Mary Lacy is confident in the evidence she holds against him. Given the potential for embarassment, It would seem unlikely she would bring him back unless she felt her investigators had a solid case to pursue.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Spotlight Redirected

The circus moves to California for now. The Boulder DA's Office has said nothing about sending John Mark Karr on to Colorado immediately. He can be held indefinitely in California, where he was found guilty in absentia on child pornography charges. In Colorado, however, authorities will have to charge him within 48 hours of his arrival. It would seem unlikely for them to move him without possessing air-tight evidence.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Juarez Murders Arrest

This week's Denver arrest in the murders of Juarez women was a stunner with an interesting back story, just as we were all getting our footing on the Ramsey arrest.

ICE or Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it has tied suspect Edgar Alvarez-Cruz to at least 10 of the 300-plus murders. The story wasn't supposed to be announced by ICE until Friday. But the Mexican Ambassador put out a press release a day early. One Denver reporter tells me the surprise announcement was made out of embarassment --something to consider given the scrutiny authorities in the Mexican state of Chihuahua have been under.

What's Next in the Big Arrest?

Around this country, media and public alike, we're asking ourselves is this the guy? DNA from beneath JonBenet's fingers should answer that. The dried fluid on her underwear, we're hearing could be too weak. One source says there were fluids and the way they mixed may have ruined that sample. Since DA Mary Lacy's office has said they will not talk about evidentiary items, whichever way that goes is probably off limits.

To end any speculation, someone will likely leak the results of the Karr mouth swab and sample from beneath JonBenet's fingernail . If positive, because it will end the echo chamber of skepticism; if negative, because some insider would think it an absurdity for the public to remain in the dark and/or Lacy's Office to face continued questioning about its judgment in Karr's arrest.

No matter what, the prime suspect will remain in custody. He'll can be held initially in California for an absentia conviction on 2001 child pornography charges. If Lacy lacks the evidence she buy time, it's a foreseeable move for her to leave Karr there temporarily. Once he returns to Colorado, authorities have only 48 hours to charge him. If he's there too long though questions about why the DA is not bringing him back will arise.


There has been never-ending speculation this guy is a "wingnut" seeking a attention, because there are holes in his story. Now, he claims, he didn't make statements that conflict with established facts. Law enforcement agencies often engage in disinformation to catch a criminal. They will put out bogus information so during interrogation the suspect will correct them. Then they know it's their guy. It weeds out the phonies. Is that happening with the Boulder DA's investigation?

We know this for certain, she was not bludgeoned, as he purportedly admitted.

Even though toxicology tests suggest otherwise, he also purportedly admitted to poisoning JonBenet. (This is an area a former investigator tells me, where authorities might issue disinformation).

The problem is the alibis...Not one, not two, but three. And an ex-wife who leaves a guy for sex crimes against kids is unlikely to stick up for him. Given her forthcoming nature, within 24 hours of the arrest...she probably isn't lying, liars generally aren't quick to jump into the spotlight...then again...we just don't know about Mr. Karr.

Strong case?

As for a little anecdotal story that could signify what's to come...I was talking to Fox's Greta Van Susteren about how it doesn't seem like DA Lacy has a strong case. Her presser lacked the tone of a DA hot on big break. Answering a question I asked about whether this took John Ramsey off the suspect list, Lacy responded: "John Ramsey is presumed innocent. John Mark Karr is presumed innocent."

Frankly that's a strange answer and doesn't seem like the attitude of a DA with a strong case. Then again, Lacy's relaxed demeanor could simply be that of a DA who has an ace up her sleeve and a poker face meant to confuse.

Should we (the media) have been more skeptical before full-blown coverage? We didn't really have a choice. The Asian press decided for us. The attention it was getting there and the video via feed overrode most meaningful editorial meetings on American soil.

Back to Greta though, she thinks the DA's case is pretty bunk right now and told me as much. She's so confident in this story, she's already left Boulder...for San Francisco. That could be a sign of things to come. Though most everyone else is still doing sidewalk duty outside the Boulder County courthouse.

Karr is expected to be en route to California tomorrow. How long he's there could dictate what comes next. An immediate trip from California to Colorado would suggest confidence in the case on the part of the DA. The longer Karr sits in a California jail cell, the more the public is going to begin to wonder about the validity of DA Lacy's case.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Boulder Circus

***This post is in response to a question from a journalism professor about whether the attention the JonBenet story receives is warranted***

For years, far too many news resources have been dedicated to this story. Two thoughts about that: one, at a time of crisis oversees that speaks to the sad state of what we will pander to and what our audiences consume. Two, once a story takes a certain prominence, like the Ramsey case has, it will never go away -- except perhaps with a conviction.

When I was here for the initial investigation and then grand jury hearings in the late 90s, I was always torn on this issue. Compared with the Middle East conflict, and the Iraq war, THIS IS NOT news, nor should it be in any normal time. However exciting for the reporter assigned to a story, we should always be asking: is it newsworthy? There are many, many incredible elements to this story -- with so many twists and turns no one could imagine. But does it deserve the prominence it has been given? Absolutely not.

Who does this story effect anyway? The answer would be nobody, if it wasn't so prominent. But here in Boulder, in some way everyone is affected. Most are just repulsed that all the reporters crawling around are putting their town back under an intense spotlight.

The problem here is every little development has been covered intently. Once that happens, the circus taking its three rings elsewhere is unlikely.

In a number of my live shots and Q & As yesterday, I found myself making the point that should the arrest of John Mark Karr ultimately exonerate John Ramsey, this case will surpass the Richard Jewell case and others as a case study in media ethics gone totally wrong (in many ways it already has).

John, and before her death, Patsy, and the rest of the Ramsey family, have been put through the wringer. They were long ago convicted in the court of public opinion despite a good amount of exculpatory evidence. Should they be cleared of the crime, I only hope the way we in the media approach certain stories will change.

From day one, this case should never have received the attention it did. That said, the timing of the murder during a slow news period (Christmas 1996), coupled with the fact JonBenet looked like an angel, changed everything about what would otherwise simply be the murder of a child. What really propelled the initial television coverage, I think, was the fact there was video of her pageants. And once the Denver stations latched on, national followed and never let up.

Here in the parking lot of the Boulder County Courthouse, the 30 satellite trucks and 120 or so reporters who were at yesterday's presser demonstrate this story is not going away. Being caught up reporting the latest, I haven't been able to see much of the on-air coverage, but know it's dominating. It shouldn't, but it is.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

On Assignment: Arrest in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder

***Piece was written the night August 16th, though not posted until August 17th***

Vacations never seem to go as planned. And this one is no exception. Back home in Colorado for a little R & R, everything was turned upside down today.

After nearly 10 years, police have made an arrest in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder. Having covered the initial investigation and subsequent grand jury hearings, I knew my vacation was over. I write this from Boulder tonight. It's 9:27. I'll be able to catch a couple of hours of sleep before an early wake up call. Then it's over to the Boulder County Courthouse to begin live hits (live shots) beginning at 4:00 a.m. mountain time for stations around the country.

Boulder County DA Mary Lacy will hold a press conference at 10:00 a.m. , I'll be there and intend on blogging this assignment throughout. Hopefully, we'll get a better answer as to who the suspect is.

Over the course of the day, those of us who have covered the case have found ourselves asking just who is John Mark Karr?

This much we know: he was picked up in Thailand on unrelated sexual assault charges, he may have taught as a 2nd grade teacher at an elementary school in either Boulder or Atlanta, or both. Aside from that it's a name were told even the Boulder Police department was unaware of before a phone call this morning from the Boulder DA's Office. Apparently, the Boulder DA's Office Jon Benet Ramsey Task Force has been handling this development without help from Boulder PD. That's an entirely different story though. They Boulder Police and Boulder DA's Office have never had a warm relationship, making the story that much more interesting.

For news observers and observers of the media...GET READY! This is just the beginning of a prolonged legal saga...and the media circus is coming to town.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Blogging and Journalism: A New, Questionable Frontier

This marks August Skamenca's first blog entry. After questioning the relevancy of the cyber-phenomena he decided to embark on his own quest to get a better understanding of the allure of the blog.

Ask anyone in my field if blogging is journalism and the hard and fast answer is “no.” As I type this Microsoft Word even tells me blogging is not accepted as a word, as evidenced by correction red beneath the word itself. Blogger (and bloggers) are not recognized by Word either.

Wondering if I just have an outdated version of Word, I made a quick check of It [blogger] is there, along with blog…blogging is not. Though it does turn up as a noun under blog.

While linguists may be slow to catch on, others have not been. Look online and the cyber-community is exploding with hundreds, probably thousands of new bloggers everyday. Blogging has become a sub-culture of the Internet community. But again, is it journalism? In some cases. Journalists do blog.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has his “Daily Nightly.” The folks over at CBS have “Public Eye,” an ombudsman’s site of sorts, frequently turning a critical eye on its own news broadcasts.

Now, this journalist has taken of leap of blind faith. I’m going to blog. Sure the word seems foreign to my vocabulary, but why not? How long will I do it? I don’t know. Will I like it? I don’t know. Whatever the outcome, blogging is a new frontier. Giddyup.