True Crime And Justice

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

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.