‘Television Justice’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Following the suicide of an assistant district attorney in the Dallas suburb of Murphy, Texas, WFAA-TV reporter Byron Harris and producer Mark Smith heard a rumor that the man had been part of a sting operation. When the Murphy Police Department refused to release further information on the suicide or the sting, Mr. Harris started asking questions.
The resulting three-part, duPont Award-winning report “Television Justice” takes an old-fashioned approach to television journalism in our modern era of reality shows and Internet sex.
“The man who killed himself was a suspected Internet predator,” Mr. Harris said, “and a group called Perverted Justice found out about him and tracked him down. They convinced the Murphy Police Department to set up a sting operation.”
Perverted Justice, Mr. Harris discovered, had been hired by NBC’s “Dateline” for its recurring “To Catch a Predator” segment. Led by one man, the Internet stealth group infiltrates online chat rooms.
“They set up sting houses,” Mr. Harris said, “and bring in Internet predators with the idea they’re going to meet some young boy or girl—and when [the alleged predators] go in the house, there are camera crews and cops waiting.”
WFAA discovered it was hard to tell the difference between the cops and the camera crew.
“We were watching tapes of [the Murphy sting house] and there was a cop making an arrest,” Mr. Harris said. “In some shots, all we could see was a hand holding a gun at the end of an arm, and there’s a voice saying, ‘You’re under arrest.’ And we thought, ‘Wait a minute. Who’s holding the camera?’”
Mr. Harris realized the Murphy police were, in effect, “being used as cameramen for a reality show.”
Although nearly two dozen arrests were made in the Murphy sting, none of the suspects has been prosecuted. “A local district attorney went on camera during the investigation,” Mr. Harris said, “and pointed out that the Murphy police were in such a hurry to make a television show, they didn’t do the work required to get these guys arrested.”
Mr. Harris also found that key evidence, such as chat logs and other records necessary for prosecution of online predators, was withheld from authorities by producers, forcing prosecutors to concede they could not win a conviction of any of the suspects.
“They can’t even turn that evidence over to the D.A.’s office,” Mr. Harris said, “since it’s already been on television.”
“To Catch a Predator” and Perverted Justice have altered the way they set up sting operations as a result of “Television Justice.” But criticism about the suicide of the assistant D.A. lingers.
“He never went to the sting house,” Mr. Harris said, “so they went to his house instead. They broke in with a SWAT team, and the guy blew his brains out. I’m not saying he was a good guy; I don’t know. He was a suspected predator. I’m saying what happens when TV journalists pretend to be cops, and cops pretend to be journalists?”
Credits: Byron Harris, reporter; Mark Smith, producer; Kraig Kirchem, photographer and editor; Dave Arnold, additional photography; Michael Valentine, news director


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