Thursday, May 6, 2010

Inflation of "news value" is tawdry

What, you might ask yourself, could the strangulation of a 6-year-old beauty princess in a posh Boulder neighborhood in 1996 and the drug-and-alcohol-induced death of a Colorado State University sophomore in a Fort Collins rental house in 2010 possibly have in common?

Ordinarly, absolutely nothing. If you are a student of crimnology, and if you examined both cases, you would find nothing in common between the two cases. The little girl's murder remains unsolved; the college student apparently drank and drugged unwisely.The deaths happened 14 years and 45 miles apart.

If, on the other hand, you are a journalist looking for a way to inflate the value of your news story, you reach way down deep and you make a connection that once would have been found only in the tawdriest of supermarket tabloids.

The first murder, of course, is that of JonBenet Ramsey. She was found the day after Christmas, strangled and beaten to death, in the basement of the Ramseys' Boulder home. The murder remains unsolved and has been so extensively reported that it is part of the American national memory.

The second is the death of 20-year-old John Hunter-Hauck, a sophomore at Colorado State University, who was found dead in his bed Monday morning. Drug and alcohol abuse are suspected.

The connection? Hauck is the son of Alex Hunter, former district attorney for Boulder County. JonBenet Ramsey's murder happened on Hunter's watch, and his office was unable to bring any charges in the case.

The Ramsey case made Hunter -- and a number of other people -- a national figure, and not always in a good light. Blame for the lack of closure on the case is divided among the Boulder Police Department, Boulder County Sheriff's Office, DA's office and even the Ramsey family. The bungling started almost immediately and never seemed to end, from officers allowing John Ramsey to join the search of the house and discover his daughter's body to investigators' insistence that the parents were somehow mixed up in the murder. Even Hunter, when he retired from public office, called the Ramsey case one of the true low points of his career.

For all its notoriety and fame, however, mention of the Ramsey case doesn't belong anywhere near the coverage of John Hunter-Hauck's death. Alex Hunter was the Boulder District Attorney for 28 years, and one one of the most respected and most aggressive DAs of his time. There were other cases for which he and his staff should be remembered, cases in which the bad guys got put away (though sometimes for not nearly long enough.)

Two of the cases of which I have personal knowledge are the murders of 27-year-old Mary Ann Bryan in 1981 and 3-year-old Michael Manning in December 1982

Bryan was kidnapped from a Longmont, Colo., pharmacy on January 28, 1981, during a fake robbery. She was taken to a remote area of Boulder County near Lyons west of Longmont and beaten to death with a rock. Her killer, Robert "Tattoo Bob" Landry, apparently tried to shoot Bryan, but his gun wouldn't work. He was hired by Bryans ex-husband, Herbert Marant, who ramains in prison for the killing. Landry died in prison in 1989. I joined the staff of the Longmont Times-Call just days before Landry's trial began. The trial was moved to Grand Junction largely because of the histrionics of the Boulder Daily Camera's reporters, some of whom were held in contempt by the court for their unprofessional conduct. Among the details that came out during the trial: Pieces of Mary Ann's skull were found tucked into the pockets of her skirt. Investigators surmised that, while dying, the victim found pieces of her skull on the floor of the outhouse where she was beaten and stuffed them into her pocket.

Mikey Manning was the son of Elizabeth Manning, then a 31-year-old former prostitute who'd already lost track of a 6-year-old child several years before she moved to Boulder in the early 1980s. On the night of Dec. 17, 1982, Manning's boyfriend, Daniel Aravelo, beat little Mikey for six hours, then left the boy to die on the floor of the bathroom. According to an affidavit I read of the case, Elizabeth told police Aravelo beat Mikey with the buckle end of a belt until his arm grew tired, then stopped to rest, then went back and beat him some more. Manning and Aravelo both went to prison for the murder, but neither did much time; frustrated Boulder police detectives fumbled an interview and Manning's confession was thrown out of court.

The point of all of this is that these cases were among the hundreds of cases Hunter and his staff handled, including dozens of murders, kidnappings, attempted murders, child abuse cases, rapes, and the list goes on. In some, like the Bryan case, the authorities performed superbly, got the perpetrators and built cases that kept the murderers off the streets, probably forever. In others, like the Manning case, at least some modicum of justice was dealt, if imperfectly and incompletely.

So why, whenever Alex Hunter is mentioned, must the Ramsey case be brought up? The news agencies offer something of a fig leaf by saying the Ramsey case gained Hunter national attention. I suppose, but the same could be said of Jerry Winterrowd. Remember the iconic photo of John and Patsy Ramsey leaving St. John's Cathedral in Denver after JonBenet's funeral? The guy on the left is the Rt. Rev. Jerry Winterrowd, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. He offered considerable support and succor to the Ramseys in the weeks and months after JonBenet's death. While his stint as father confessor to the Ramseys may be his most "famous" moment, however, Father Winterrowd, now retired, will be best remembered for his unceasing struggle to be a voice of reason in the Episcopal College of Bishops, especially concerning the issue of homosexuality. That's if he's remembered at all.

So why does Alex Hunter have to have the Ramsey case hung around his neck for the rest of his life? It's irresponsible of Colorado news outlets to sum up the man's career with that one case, and it's downright ghoulish of them to mention the Ramsey case while covering the death of Hunter's own son. The only reason it is done is so the name JonBenet can be attached to a story, evoking yet again the horror, the tragedy, and yes, even the sex appeal, of that horrific case. It is irresponsible and tawdry.