NBC (and MSNBC) relentlessly runs a show called “To Catch a Predator“, which is simply a televised sting operation–middle aged men, apparently of the belief that they are chatting with a 15 year old girl, take the bold step of visiting the “girl,” only to be confronted by a dour and smug Stone Phillips inside the camera-rigged house. Many of the men are stunned into docility by the surreality of it all–their illicit sexual encounter has abruptly morphed into This is Your Life–and agree to be interviewed on television. Immediately after, a team of police inside a van parked in front of the house spring out and arrest the still-stunned interviewee. This show creeped me out from day one, and only partly due to the depicted behavior of the suspects.
Let me make clear that I’m not expressing sympathy for these men–they should be held accountable. I do find some aspects of this operation disturbing, however. For one thing, like Law & Order: SVU, the show is getting a ton of ratings mileage from the very thing it is lordly sneering at, the titillation inherent in the possibility of an illicit sexual encounter. Not that all its ratings derive from this, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise based on the thin content offered up by the show. The show is just one gotcha moment after the last, with Stone Phillips essentially prying out a sentencing allocution from the accused immediately before they’re arrested. It’s exploitation made worse by the absence of any socially redeeming features … made even worse because the show hinges on the proposition that it furthering a social good (alerting a community to potential criminals is a good, but the national audience suggests a broader purpose–”humilitainment,” as Defamer puts it).
And this brings me to my second problem–by formally assuming a law enforcement role minus the legal wherewithal, NBC jeopardizes the local prosecutor’s ability to convict any of these guys. So they’ve stopped bothering. From an April 2006 Washington Post story [no link, story from Lexis]:
Von Erck said his group’s members [the group being Perverted-Justice.com, which worked alongside NBC for the Catch a Predator series] have helped identify hundreds of alleged pedophiles through Internet stings. The group, which began in 2002, also claims to have provided police with information that led to 100 arrests and 50 convictions in 25 states. “We turn up great evidence that stands up in court,” he said.
But that claim is disputed by the group Corrupted Justice, whose mission includes counteracting the work of Perverted Justice, and is based near Ottawa. A spokesman for Corrupted Justice said much of Perverted Justice’s efforts are counterproductive because most of the people it exposes suffer no legal consequence and remain free to prey on children. Perverted Justice’s members also have mistakenly identified and harassed innocent people but are not held accountable because they operate anonymously, typically using computer screen names, Corrupted Justice spokesman Scott Morrow said.
“The fact is, these people are amateurs,” Morrow said. “They’re volunteers, with no official training, no training in law enforcement, no training in the rules of evidence, no idea about maintaining evidence so it can be used in court. They shop this stuff around, and most of the time local law enforcement tells them, ‘We can’t use it.’ ”
Morrow said NBC’s involvement with Perverted Justice is particularly troubling: “They’re manufacturing the news, rather than just reporting it. They’re not only working with untrained, anonymous vigilantes, but now they’re paying them, too.” He said NBC could do stories on what police departments and the FBI are doing to hunt down pedophiles without resorting to “questionable” tactics. [emphasis added throughout]
Shortly after that story ran, the district attorney from a Dallas suburb where a large chunk of NBC stings took place refused to prosecute any of the men because many of the cases were “tainted by the involvement of amateurs.”
Chris Hansen (the other Stone Phillips), has stated that 117 convictions or guilty pleas have resulted from 286 arrests during the show’s 3 year run, but it would be difficult to check those possibly self-serving numbers. Even so, that’s not a fantastic clearance rate. And the fact that more than half the suspects walked suggests that the half that didn’t walk may have had inadequate counsel, since the facts arising from these stings are basically identical.
Then there’s a third problem: What happens when NBC, imbued with faux-muckraking self-importance, forages past their already sketchy ethics boundaries? In the same Texas district mentioned above, where the prosecutor refused to charge any of the suspects, one answer is apparently suicide. A $105m lawsuit was filed against NBC by the sister of a Texas prosecutor from a neighboring district who chose to kill himself rather than guest star on NBC.
Louis “Bill” Conradt Jr., who did not go to the Murphy sting house, shot himself in the head after Murphy police and other North Texas officers forced their way into his Terrell home in November. NBC was outside with cameras.
Conradt didn’t even walk into the sting house–he stayed home after allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover posing as a 13 year old boy. Under Texas law, a suspect does not have to show up–the deliberate planning of a meeting alone is sufficient for a conviction. But this raises a problematic question concerning the lack of an actus reas. How does one go from typing his dirty thoughts to a stranger to suicidal in a manner of an hour?
The issue in the case will be negligence–whether suicide was a foreseeable result of NBC’s actions. Where I might answer the question in the negative if it regarded one of the suspects who showed up at the sting house, I’m less sure how I’d answer the question where, as here, it regards a suspect who did not show up, was about to endure a raid on his house by the police and media, and whose innocence was more probable.
Finally, there’s the overarching (and thorniest) problem where televised justice and its lower due process standards competes with the judicial system. While TV can’t put you in jail, it’s probably true that it could ruin the life of an innocent in a manner worse than actual imprisonment could not–especially where an infamously heinous crime such as pedophilia is concerned, and the matter is publicized nationally. The initial publication of a story is often also the end of the story–NBC’s primetime newsmagazine show might be seen by a million people, few of whom will ever see those suspects again.
This post is not to suggest regulations on any party or industry–I realize that behind door one is more than a little First Amendment friction. But the problem of pedophilia could certainly be tackled by NBC in a manner far less exploitative and protective of individual rights.