Friday, January 17, 2014

'First 48' profits from false accusations against innocent people

The New Times in Miami has an exceptional piece about an reality show on A&E titled "The First 48 makes millions off imprisoning innocents." Premised on the (dubious) notion that most murders are solved in the first 48 hours or not at all, the reality show depicts police investigations during those first two days after a murder. In Dallas, Detective Dwayne Thompson, whose interrogation methods were highlighted in this Grits post, has been one of the detectives profiled.

The Miami New Times hones in on the fact that the show's producers are looking for good television, not necessarily the truth about who committed the crimes depicted. One of the innocents they identify who was falsely accused on the show was from Houston:
1,300 miles south in Houston, an innocent man named Cameron Coker languished inside a Harris County jail awaiting trial. In mid-July 2009, 16-year-old Eric Elizarraraz had been shot at an apartment complex just off Highway 6. The boy had confronted a group of men who'd insulted his girlfriend. At least three witnesses offered county deputies a similar description of the killer — tall, light-skinned, skinny — and later picked 18-year-old Coker out of a lineup. As cameras rolled, Coker, who professed innocence, was arrested and charged with murder.

When the episode "Straight Menace" aired on March 11, 2010, viewers howled for Coker's execution. "Put him down," one commenter wrote in an online forum. "They got the death penalty in Houston?"
But the case was substantially more fraught with error than viewers realized. Though the show didn't broadcast it, none of the witnesses whom detectives used were positive Coker was the shooter.

In February 2012 — after Coker had spent nearly three years in jail — Steven M. Smith, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M and an expert in human memory, tracked down the witnesses as part of Coker's defense. The first, Andrew Nguyen, confessed he hadn't seen the shooting and had "taken a good guess," picking Coker out of the lineup "based on what my other friends had told me," according to court documents.

Another witness, Roberto Valdez, who confessed he'd been drunk and high on weed and Xanax the day of the murder, said he told detectives he wasn't sure who pulled the trigger and would "guess." At the bottom of the photo array, he wrote, "I'm p.," which he later told Smith had meant, "I'm probably wrong." A third witness also admitted he hadn't been sure.

In mid-2012, after spending 1,095 days in prison, Coker was released. Prosecutors' closeout memo had cited "witness identification problems."

"I couldn't believe they did that to me," Coker now tells New Times. "It was like a torture that no one should have to go through in this life." Coker's attorney, Vivian King, says she's repeatedly asked The First 48's producers to stop rebroadcasting the episode now that Coker has been exonerated, but they've declined. First 48 producers refused to comment for this article.

"Just imagine the image they made out of me," Coker says, adding he fears retribution for a crime he didn't do. "Even when I walk places I've never been, people know me from The First 48 without really knowing what happened."
Read the whole story. Grits has never been comfortable with the notion of crime as entertainment, so I must admit this New Times story confirms many of my own biases. It's irresponsible when accusations are trumpeted from the mountaintops but dismissals are back-page news, if they're acknowledged at all. They'll keep doing it, though, as long as the method generates strong ratings.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I call it "Frame the Black man in 48 hours".

Soronel Haetir said...

Well, then in this case they were apparently truthful that the crime is solved in the first 48 hours or not at all.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SH - most murders are solved quickly because it's very obvious who did it. When it's not, careful investigation matters more than speed. Mark Norwood was convicted more than a quarter century after killing Michael Morton's wife. A single anecdote proves nothing.

hạt điều rang muối said...

so terrible

Anon by Choice said...

I am boycotting A&E for this and other similarly badly conceived and executed shows.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

I must agree that A&E should stop airing that episode and their refusal to do so should leave them open to lawsuit from Coker. I do not however think that A&E has tried to frame people due to their race. I further agree that reality TV based on the investigation, that leaves the viewer with a sense of the persons guilt or innocence is a terrible thing because it is prejudicial and then you have situations like Mr. Coker' He should be able to seek relief through legal action.

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny how a confirmed gang member is worried about how the show had him perceived. It's say his actions in life set his image.

As for the show, don't they have to have permission to show suspects like COPS does? I was under the impression they sign waivers. There was a case here in Houston where a victim's family found out the victim died during a homosexual tryst and had the episode stopped from being aired.

Socialist Gumshoe said...

Thanks for posting this. I have seen The First 48 and in fact, loads of my friends encourage me to watch it because they know I'm an investigator. I could have assumed this about The First 48, but having concrete examples really drives it home.

I truly think that using criminal justice for any type of entertainment ultimately undermines the ACTUAL pursuit of justice.

Anonymous said...

Without a doubt "The first 48" is opne of the best reality shows on TV and their facts are accurate, as I follow up by reading the case on the internet. They also demonstrate there accuracy by also broadcasting their follow up show " After the First 48" Which is equally as well done.
No matter how great things are in this world, there always seem to be haters out there that try to spoil a good thing.

Tony Z said...

Regarding the comment above about A&E broadcasting follow-up shows "After the First 48", where is the follow-up episode on Coker's false accusation / imprisonment?

I, too, have enjoyed these shows - still do, in fact. The commenter above does what I do - if I have questions about an episode, I Google it. The episodes I've Google, I've never encountered inaccuracies in what was aired.

Lest we all forget, A&E ensures the statement "All suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty".