A hoax spun out in the media has more plot twists than the Twin Peaks TV show.
By Judy Berman
The Manti Te’o story has more plot twists than the Twin Peaks TV show, and just as many odd characters.
Did a friend dupe Te’o into believing he had a girlfriend named Lennay Kekua who died last September of leukemia? Turns out, there is no girlfriend. Everyone has come under fire in this story, including the reporters who should have been more skeptical and dug deeper.
It is a cautionary tale for reporters who are too close to those they cover. The adage to new reporters is: “If your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” That’s not just typical newsroom dark humor talking. It’s experience.
The Te’o story is still unraveling. Not all the facts are in. As the story unfolds, some cringe-worthy moments might emerge and reputations might be tarnished.
But this story needs to be put in perspective with other “tall tales” that have had a devastating impact on those involved.
Rev. Al Sharpton has championed equal justice in crime cases. In this photo in 1989, he’s protesting the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, 16, a black teen in a white neighborhood. Two years earlier, he was criticized for his actions in the Tawana Brawley case – later labeled a hoax.
* In November 1987, I was working late at WHEN-AM radio in Liverpool, New York, when a shocking story crossed the wire. A Wappingers Falls’ girl, who had been missing for four days from her home, was found in a trash bag. The 15-year-old girl (Tawana Brawley) was dazed, covered in feces and had racial epithets scrawled across her torso. The Associated Press wire story stated that the teen was reportedly abducted, held captive, and raped by a gang of white men.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and Brawley’s lawyers accused Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones of being one of the men who raped Brawley.
The story quickly became a feeding frenzy for the media – each news outlet intent on being the first in pursuit of “hot news.” Mike Taihbi and Anna Sims-Philips covered the story for WCBS-TV, and their investigative reporting didn’t jibe with the daily press conferences. Their book, “Unholy Alliances: Working the Tawana Brawley Story,” (1989) outlined how the case unfolded.
I interviewed Sims-Philips. She said their findings angered the Brawley advisers and supporters. They received death threats, demonstrators protested outside the station, and pressure was put on the network to remove them from the story.
In 1988, a grand jury found that there had been no rape, that the case was a hoax. Authorities said Brawley’s story was made up to avoid punishment for running away and missing school.
“But, in the end, something changed,” the authors wrote. “Pieces of the truth were forced into the open air, not the whole truth; that’s still hidden. But enough of it emerged, through the efforts of forensic scientists and investigators and, yes, the press, so that there was room and time at last, away from the noise of the headlines and the six o’clock news, for people to measure those bits of truth and privately choose what was worthy of belief. The rhetoric has been silence. The silence, though, remains.”
“In 1998, Pagones won a defamation lawsuit against Sharpton, Brawley and her lawyers. (Alton H.) Maddox was found liable for $97,000, (C. Vernon) Mason for $188,000, and Sharpton was ordered to pony up $66,000,” according to a Dec. 23, 2012, story by the New York Post.
“Brawley was ordered to fork over $190,000 at 9 percent annual interest.” The New York Post reported that all but Brawley paid up.
Once a media darling, New York State Trooper David Harding was later found guilty of framing Shirley Kinge in connection with the 1989 murders of the Harris family – a case that her son, Michael, was the primary suspect in before being killed in a shootout with a New York State Police SWAT team.
* What the press – and the public – knows in the beginning stages of a news story is often limited. Details are few and everyone is clamoring for answers and – when there’s a crime – an arrest.
Two days before Christmas in 1989, the murders of the Harris family in Dryden, New York, was eerily similar to Truman Capote’s story, “In Cold Blood.” Warren and Dolores Harris, their daughter, Shelby, 15, and their son, Marc, 11, were bound, blindfolded, shot and killed. Before Shelby was killed, she was raped. The primary suspect, Michael Kinge, then doused the house with gasoline and set a fire before he fled.
Credit cards taken from the Harris home, used during a shopping spree, were traced back to Michael Kinge and his mother, Shirley.
“On February 7 (1990), members of the New York State Police SWAT team burst into the duplex apartments where Mr. Kinge and his mother lived. Mr. Kinge, holding a shotgun, according to the police accounts, was shot dead. Mrs. Kinge was first charged as an accessory in the Harris murders,” The New York Times reported.
The drama didn’t end there. In the courtroom, Trooper David L. Harding charmed the press with his stories about the case. He was likable, friendly, and always available for an interview.
Harding bragged about how he befriended Shirley Kinge at her workplace. He had a cast on his arm and asked her to address some letters to be sent to Harrisburg. (This was done to see how she wrote the victim’s name when she used the credit cards.)
Harding also got her fingerprints off a glass of water she brought to him. Kinge’s prints were a match to those on a gas can found at the Harris family crime scene. Kinge was convicted of burglary and arson. She was sentenced 17 to 44 years in prison.
This was based on Shirley Kinge’s presence at the murder scene.
Only it wasn’t true. About 2 ½ years into her prison sentence, she was released from prison after an investigation found that David Harding planted her fingerprints from the glass at her workplace onto the gas can in the Harris home.
It wasn’t the only time that Harding and a few other troopers took shortcuts to gather “evidence” to convict someone they thought was guilty of a crime.
Harding pleaded guilty to perjury in two of the four cases investigated. He was sentenced Dec. 16, 1992, to 4 to 12 years in prison and fined $20,000 for fabricating evidence in the four documented cases, according to Wikipedia.
In 2009, New York Court of Claims Judge Nicholas Midey Jr.awarded Kinge $250,000 “based on the emotional and mental anguish she suffered and her loss of privacy and liberty while imprisoned,” according to the Ithaca Journal.
“Midey found that Kinge was the victim of malicious prosecution and negligent supervision of a state police investigator who planted phony fingerprint evidence and gave false testimony linking her to the Harris family slayings.”
These cases serve as a reminder that everyone – the media, police, the public – need to be skeptical about the facts and the evidence.
When I wrote “Tried in the Media” for WHEN, a newspaper executive offered this hopeful insight: “The truth will emerge. Not instantly and always, but it will emerge.”
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Photo: Twin Peaks http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/twin-peaks/images/4244602/title/twin-peaks-wallpaper
Court of Claims case: Shirley Turner Kinge, Claimant v. State of New York, Defendant – filed Dec. 13, 2007 http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ny-court-of-claims/1427693.html
Photo: David Harding – book cover “Good Cop Bad Cop” by Rebecca H. Cofer with David McElligott http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51T0F0370RL._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_SS500_.jpg
Photo: Rev. Al Sharpton – Protest March – 1989 – Brooklyn, NY In another case that drew national attention, the Rev. Al Sharpton led the first of dozens of protest marches after 40 white teenagers murdered Yusuf Hawkins, 16, a black teen in the (then) white neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. He led marchers every week for over a year despite catcalls and threats to his life. In 1991, he was stabbed during another march in Bensonhurst. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/06/Al_Sharpton%2C_1989_Protest_March%2C_Brooklyn_NY.jpg/640px-Al_Sharpton%2C_1989_Protest_March%2C_Brooklyn_NY.jpg