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WHEN THE MEDIA GOES TOO FAR: COVERING THE TRIAL OF A JUDGE FOR HIS CHILD’S DEATH | American Justice?

Another blatant example of the media going too far in sensationalizing a story occurred with the Arkansas-Democratic Gazette’s August 14 to 20th coverage about the jury trial in central Arkansas of Judge Wade Naramore, also featured online at www.arkansasonline.com.

 
A year ago, Naramore forgot that he had left his 17 month old son Thomas in his car, and the boy succumbed to heat stroke and died. He had thought he had dropped his son, who was in the back seat, for day care, but when he returned from his court hearings for the day and thought he was going to pick up his son Thomas to take him to a swimming lesson, he discovered the boy’s lifeless body in the back of the car.
 
Though Naramore was devastated by the death of his son, sobbing hysterically and holding his son in his arms in his front yard exclaiming “I killed my child, I killed my child,” as a neighbor reported, the local prosecutor charged him with negligent homicide. Though this charge is considered a misdemeanor with a maximum term of a year in prison and a fine of $2500, and Naramore was already wracked with guilt and grief, the media supported the prosecution in turning an accidental death into a media circus.
 
The Gazette, the biggest newspaper in Arkansas, headlined the trial on its front page and online for four days from August 14 to 20th, and the local TV media was out in force. So even though the jury ultimately concluded Judge Naramore was not guilty, based on his defense supported by an expert witness that he was so affected by other events that day that he believed he had already dropped off his son at day care. So he did not realize his son was in the car until his grim discovery.
 
Unfortunately, the media made the story as sensational as possible, appealing to the emotions of the readers, regardless of how much this would add to the deep suffering of Naramore and his family. For example, in an August 16 article headlined: “Attorney: Photos of Boy’s Body Presented in Hot-Car Death Trial ‘Made It Real,’ the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette described in detail how “Naramore and members of his family could be seen sobbing at descriptions of authorities examining Thomas,” and how Naramore at times “covered his face with his hands, unable to hold back audible crying.” The paper also described how photos of Thomas’s body were shown to the jury, as Naramore and his family continued to sob.
 
Then, in an August 18th article, headlined “I Freaked Out,” Judge Told Police; Naramore on Video Details Events of the Day Boy Died,” the press highlighted the contrast between what Naramore thought was a routine day of picking up steaks and wine, buying his wife a certificate for a day at a spa, packing a bag with Thomas’ swimming gear, and calling his mother-in-law to say he was picking up Thomas to go to swimming lessons, before finding his body in the car. Moreover, the media continued to play up Naramore’s continuing grief by describing how at each recess, he walked out of the trial arena to “gather his wife in his arms, rocking her back and forth as she cried.” In short, the newspaper was doing all it could to paint a vivid emotional picture for its readers, using the pain of Naramore and his wife to make the story even more dramatic.
 
Worse, the media even played up an attempt by a detective to make it seem like Naramore might have forgotten his son because he was having an affair with another woman, though this wasn’t true. For example, in this same article, after describing how Naramore rocked his wife back and forth to comfort her, writer Jeannie Roberts notes that “in the video of the police interview, detective Mark Fallis asked Naramore about rumors that he was having an affair at the time of Thomas’ death.” While Naramore denied the accusation, saying that he had “never even kissed” another woman after he began dating his wife, the paper printed this information as an innuendo, citing the detective as telling Naramore that he had the woman’s name in his file.
 
At least the media did present the defense side of the case, pointing out that the detective lied about having the girl’s name in his file, since he simply got an anonymous tip about her, and that he had discovered no evidence of infidelity. Also, the media did report that Thomas was well-cared for and that some of the defense witnesses had experienced leaving their own child in the car before quickly remembering the child was there before a tragedy occurred.
 
Additionally, the media described at length the account of expert witness David Diamond, a scientist and professor at the University of South Florida, who conducted 12 years of research into why parents forget their children in vehicles – a phenomena due to various factors, such as sleep deprivation, a change in the usual routine, stress, or distraction, that lead them to experience a false memory of doing something that they usually do. So, as the media reported, Diamond gave an especially strong argument about why Naramore had come to believe he had already dropped Thomas off at day care that morning. Then, too, the paper described how after that incident, Naramore was inconsolable, had nightmares, and woke up screaming. Thus, it was understandable why the jury found him innocent, and why the courtroom broke into loud cheers and sobbing when the verdict of innocence was announced.
 
Yet, rather than briefly reporting the incident, the trial, and the results, the media turned the tragedy into a huge four day saga, which featured large photos of Naramore and his wife stoically and sadly going to court each day, much like they were on a perp walk, until the verdict of innocence came in. Then, the media featured a photo of a clearly distraught Naramore and his wife leaving the courtroom. Though he had been found innocent, the picture showed that they were both still grieving and devastated by the experience of both losing their son and going through the trial in the full glare of the media spotlight. In fact, the newspapers sought to prolong the story with its question for readers to vote on: “Do you agree with the jury’s decision in the hot-car-death trial?” giving readers the option of agreeing he should have been found not guilty or of believing he should have been found guilty.
 
In short, the media had a field day in playing up the tragedy, the trial, and the Naramore’s family’s sorrow through a story to appeal to readers, while adding greatly to the Naramores’ suffering. Part of the irony of the media pumping up the story is that the defense attorney maintained that no charges should have been filed. But whether these charges were filed or not, the media coverage would certainly seem to be excessive and did not really serve the public’s need to know. After all, the judge was not going to be a threat to the public, since this was a tragic incident, where he already felt deep grief that he had killed his son. Moreover, his internal moral ordeal might lead to him becoming a more compassionate judge, should he encounter other defendants suffering great guilt and remorse over something they have done.
 
So why did the media make Naramore and his family suffer so much more? He had already suffered the greatest loss imaginable — his only child – and making the loss even greater was that that the boy’s death was a consequence of his own actions. As reflected in his repeated sobbing in the courtroom and his weeks of therapy, the guilt he must feel far outweighs any penalty that a sentence could have imposed on him. And his wife suffered incredibly as well from the loss of her child, all the more so by having to stand by her husband’s side.
 
So why couldn’t this horrific personal tragedy have been allowed to remain personal and private? Why couldn’t an expensive jury trial with limited prosecutorial and judicial personnel have been better reserved for a felony case involving someone else with a more serious charge and longer sentence at stake? Or even if it was correct to have a jury trial on these charges, what good did it serve to so publicly rake this public servant and his family through the coals of media scrutiny, which could make this human tragedy even worse? Even if Naramore recovers from his self-inflicted psychological trauma, will his wife recover, and will their marriage survive? Will he be able to face community members after all this needless media attention? Will this cost him his career as a judge? He has already been suspended while a police investigation has been continuing, even after the trial has ended, according to media reports as of August 22nd.
 
In conclusion, the media attention in this matter cost this long-suffering family far more than even a guilty verdict in the jury trial would have. And this trial in the court of public opinion by the media wasn’t necessary. It just appealed to the public’s curiosity sparked by drama and excitement, but it did nothing to advance the public interest or the cause of justice. The members of the media covering the case were like vultures circling, waiting for the death of a wounded animal, or like the paparazzi harassing celebrities.
 
This subject of when the media goes too far is discussed in my book American Justice?. As the book suggests, it is time to rein in the media in their coverage of criminal matters, because they are not serving the public interest well by this sensationalized coverage that appeals to the public’s baser sensibilities. Instead, the American media would do well to learn from the British system, in which there is a very limited amount of media coverage until an actual verdict is announced. Such an approach seems far more appropriate and humane.