Wed, Aug 30, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Media frenzy over Karr shows nothing's changed

POINTLESS SPECULATION Prosecutors have dropped the case against Karr, but the past two weeks showed just how an overeager press had been quick to judge


Just as before, law enforcement appeared overeager and bumbling. Just as before, a hyperactive press went into overdrive, eager to pronounce guilt. And just as before, a nation of voyeurs proved only too ready to play pundit.

It has been almost a decade since the murder of JonBenet Ram-sey, but it has taken less than two weeks of fevered -- and apparently pointless -- speculation to show how little things have changed.

That seemed clear on Monday when prosecutors in Boulder, Colo-rado, abruptly dropped their case against John Mark Karr -- a 41-year-old itinerant teacher who insisted he had strangled the six-year-old beauty queen at her home on Dec. 26, 1996 -- saying DNA tests failed to put him at the crime scene.

"Because no evidence has developed, other than his own repeated admissions ... the people would not be able to establish that Mr. Karr committed this crime despite his repeated insistence that he did," district attorney Mary Lacy said in court papers.

The admission by prosecutors that they had the wrong man might have seemed shocking if this had been any other case. But in the context of the Ramsey case -- an investigation beset from its earliest stages by gross misjudgments by investigators -- it struck many observers as not only expected, but also grimly fitting.

"If there's a single mistake they haven't made, I'm not sure what it is," said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University who has written on both child molestation and serial murder. "It fits, but it makes the existing record worse."

The decision to drop the charges against Karr completes a 12-day arc that echoed many of the themes that have characterized the case. It was made all the more ironic because Karr's arrest earlier this month came as the nation appeared almost to have forgotten the case.

Any hope of that ended on Aug. 16, when police in Thailand arrested Karr and brought him before reporters, where he professed his guilt, saying he had been with JonBenet at the time of her death.

Pressed, he would not, or could not, describe just what had happened. But there was enough about his persona -- a creepy narrative that included Karr's flight from child pornography charges in California -- to whip the media and the public into a frenzy.

"Solved!," the Daily News of New York proclaimed across its front page on the morning after Karr's arrest. Its competitor, the New York Post, described Karr as a "pasty-faced, peripatetic kiddie-porn collector."

The Associated Press and other news organizations placed teams of journalists on Karr's flight from Bangkok to the US and chronicled his dining experience: champagne, fried king prawns and roast duck.

Coverage of the case -- once again featuring photos of the little princess dressed for pageant competition, now alongside photos of a gaunt and sallow Karr -- flooded back onto cable TV.

For Clay Calvert, it offered a reminder of a 2001 interview he and a colleague had conducted with John and Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet's parents, for an article about press coverage of the case.

"One of the big things she said when we interviewed her is that there shouldn't be such a rush to judgment. She really focused on the media's scoop mentality, of getting the news first and the truth be damned," said Calvert, a professor of communications and law at Penn State. "That's the irony now -- that the media didn't go slow this time around and look what's happened."

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