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article imageOp-Ed: Crime reporting - the British way and the American way

By Alexander Baron     Oct 16, 2011 in Crime
Bristol - Yesterday, the BBC morning news programme read out a complaint from a viewer about the coverage of the murder trial of Vincent Tabak. She called it voyeurish. If she'd seen the Casey Anthony trial coverage, she'd have freaked out.
This lady's objection was that television cameras had visited the crime scene along with the jury, the apartment where Tabak - by his own admission - killed Miss Yeates. Although there was apparently no blood, the victim suffered severe injuries in addition to being strangled, and is known to have fought tenaciously for her life.
In Britain, juries not infrequently visit crime scenes, especially in murder trials. When Levi Bellfield was tried for the murder of Amanda Dowler, the entire court - judge, jury and Bellfield himself - were taken to the street where he snatched the 13 year old, and the house where he is believed to have killed her for no reason other than to satisfy his perverted instincts.
In the Michael Stone case, the jury visited the prison cell where Stone was alleged to have shouted his confession to another inmate through the wall.
Crime scene photographs including post mortem (autopsy) photographs are shown to juries in British courtrooms, but they are never but never released to the public.
If one wishes to see such photographs, one has to visit the Public Record Office at Kew where historical crime scene photographs can be seen, such as from the Whitechapel Murders (Jack the Ripper), although there are also a few fairly recent ones in files open to the public. The files relating to such crimes are invariably closed for 30 years, some for considerably longer, but the crime scene photos relating to the murders of Beryl and Geraldine Evans can be found in files open to public inspection. These include autopsy photographs and photographs of their bodies after exhumation. Files relating to all the murders at 10 Rillington Place were opened early due to the extraordinary interest in the case and what is still perceived widely - though not necessarily accurately - as a miscarriage of justice. A number of books have been written about the cases of Evans & Christie, most notably The Two Stranglers of Rillington Place by Rupert Furneaux, and The Two Killers Of Rillington Place by John Eddowes, but not Ludovic Kennedy's book 10 Rillington Place, although what is likely to be the definitive book - by historian and archivist Jonathan Oates - will not be published until 2013.
Crime scene photographs or film sometimes appear in the media here when someone is caught in the act. Photographs and footage of the gunman Raoul Moat were released, of Moat holding a shotgun to his own head, though not of his actual suicide. When the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead at her North London home, there was intense public interest, and her body - covered and on a stretcher - was filmed being moved. Although the cause of her death was not determined precisely, there was no suspicion of foul play.
Perhaps most notoriously, both CCTV of the kidnap of 2 year old James Bulger by 10 year olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, and a photograph of Moors Murderess Myra Hindley posing on the grave of one of her victims were placed in the public domain - the former as part of a police appeal. There has also been footage released of the railway line where James Bulger died, but only long after his body was removed.
Holding her dog inside her coat  Myra Hindley poses on the grave of 12 year old John Kilbride; the p...
Holding her dog inside her coat, Myra Hindley poses on the grave of 12 year old John Kilbride; the photograph was taken by her lover and fellow serial killer Ian Brady.
Ian Brady
Contrast these rare examples from the British courts with the at times shocking scenes from American courtrooms. Cameras were in the courtroom for the trial of serial killer Theodore Robert (Ted) Bundy for the sorority house murders; for the OJ Simpson murder trial - including where he tried on the gloves - and for perhaps most notoriously for the Casey Anthony trial which saw some outrageous allegations by the defense, disturbing testimony by prosecution witnesses, and actual crime scene photographs, including of young Caylee's skull in situ, although at least this was pixilated out.
In the US, it is not uncommon for autopsy photographs to be leaked or even made public, and some of them are quite gruesome. Crime scene photographs from the notorious 1969 Tate-Labianca Murders, autopsy photos of the aforementioned Theodore Bundy (burn in Hell, Ted), and even from of President John F. Kennedy can be found on the web. This does not happen in Britain, and some would argue that although justice must not only be done but be seen to be done, the openness of the American criminal justice system amounts to what the lady said of the Yeates-Tabak murder case, voyeurism. Of the most unsavoury kind.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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