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True Crime And Justice

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



In 2004, the last year for which the Federal Bureau of Investigation has complete statistics, there were 16,137 reported murders in the United States. That is an average of 44.21 murders per day, every day. For the first half of 2005 that figure increased by 2.1 percent, according to federal statistics. In other words, nearly two people are murdered in this country every hour.

On January 20, 2006, two people named Rachel and Lillian Entwistle were murdered in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. They were a mother and child -- wife and daughter to a man named Neil Entwistle, who will stand trial for their deaths.

The story of the Entwistle murders is a sad and tragic and almost unthinkable one. But so are most murders that take place in this country. So why has cable news and talk radio gone wild with coverage of the Entwistle murder tale? Why this particular murder story instead of one of the other 44 or so murders that took place on that day?

The answer, I'm sure media executives will tell you in a moment of candor, is ratings. The Entwistle murders have all of the components that trigger prurient interests in the great viewing class in this country: the folks who watch reality television shows and who flock to true-crime sagas (and prime-time crime shows) like they once did to soap operas.

The Entwistle victims were beautiful and pure and white and middle-class. The suspect is a good-looking white man, who could be anyone's neighbor but who appears for all the world to be a scoundrel, who promptly left both the scene of the crime and the country before his recent arrest. If Hollywood's scriptmakers were to make a movie entitled "Laci Peterson, the Sequel" -- they would cast these poor folks as the principal characters.

Indeed, in this post-OJ, post-Laci, post-Michael, post-Chandra world, the Entwistle story fills a viewing (and ratings) void that other crime mysteries could not.

For a while, it looked like the story of Natalee Holloway would be the natural successor to the sordidness that marks frenetic coverage of these tabloid crimes. After all, the story of a beautiful young woman, lost in a romantic foreign land on May 30, 2005, amid allegations of sex on the beach, is precisely the sort of narrative that gets carnival barkers like Nancy Grace frothing at the mouth.

But Holloway has never been found, dead or alive, and no one has yet been charged in the case. That story has now moved to the civil courts, where it will mostly languish except on remarkably slow news days.

Then there was the story of George Smith IV, the rich and handsome newlywed (married to a beautiful, blond bride) who vanished on July 5, 2005, during his honeymoon.

For awhile, the Smith saga paced into contention for the role of leading tabloid crime story that would fill the many hours that need to be filled on the airwaves in this age of continuous programming. After all it, too, involved allegations of too much drinking and flirtatious behavior.

But that investigation hasn't gone anywhere either, or at least not as far as it would need to in order to generate the sort of hype that now surrounds the Entwistle case. There are only so many shows, after all, that can be devoted to analyzing legal duties and liabilities on cruise ships. Besides, now that the Entwistle case is off and running a Smith prosecution would be an off-lead tabloid crusade anyway.

The Entwistle story has by timing and default become to 2006 what the Laci Peterson saga was to 2004 and 2005. Surely that is the only way to explain why Fox News last Thursday aired live images of a police car that was taking the suspect to the courthouse for his arraignment.

Never mind the vitally interesting and significant legal stories that abound -- from the NSA surveillance program to the Lewis Libby trial and the Enron saga now underway in Houston.

The talk shows and yappy lawyers are instead going to talk incessantly now about all of the iterations of the Entwistle case until it ends, mercifully, at some point in the next twelve months or so. Into every vacuum must flow matter; into the vacuum of modern media coverage flows this: a story that will in no way merit the attention it receives.

Why? Because there is a cottage industry in America now that drives the inexorable push that makes these sorts of local murder stories go national. The demand is there, in time (so many hours to fill) and personnel (so many talking-head lawyers to justify), and so the great conveyors of legal news now will shift into overdrive.

The more the Entwistle case gets covered, the more coverage it will justify under this twisted logic, because if you tell a story often enough - whether it is important or not - viewers become invested in it. There apparently is some unwritten law these days on cable television, the Internet, and talk radio that there always must be at least one sordid murder tale to talk about; grist for the mill. In the parlance of the day, call it "Cable Hosts Gone Wild."

But try justifying that particular application of media resources to the family of Kimberly Crespi, whose husband, David, is accused of murdering two of their children near Charlotte, North Carolina on January 20 -- the same day that the Entwistles, mother and child, were killed.

Try explaining to your neighbor why the world is supposed to care more about the Entwistles than the family of Sharon Mont, whose ex-husband, Nicholas, allegedly fatally shot her in the head that day. And try getting together the families of the five murder victims slain in and around Baltimore on January 20th and 21st to let them know why their loved ones won't be memorialized on the airwaves night in and night out. I could go on and on, forty more times -- and for every single day between January 20th and today.

None of this is intended to make light of the Entwistle murders or to diminish the scope of that tragedy. The point is that there are many other tragedies, far too many other tragedies, which do not receive blanket coverage on Larry King's show and which thus do not become national stories.

And while crime is usually random, the selection an
By Andrew Cohen

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