Monday, October 6, 2014

The Perfect Example: How Gone Girl Gives Us Pause.

This weekend, movie-goers were dazzled by the fantastic thriller, Gone Girl. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, it seems at first like a murder mystery where a beautiful, young woman disappears. And it is...but it's much more than that. It is about the crucifixion of a husband by the Media. 
Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises


The Double-Edged Sword.

In our Criminal Law practice, we are always very wary of the Media. It can exonerate or bury you. If your side of the story/conversation gets out first, it's a beneficial tool. But if the "wrong" side gets out before you and your client can get ahead of the conversation, it can be devastating. You end up doing a lot of damage control in our line of work to say the least. 

A Clever Tale.

Reading the book, the media angle was a big part of the book, but seeing it in the silver screen was quite different. (Go see the film, by the way.) It enraged me to watch this story unfold with the media story and the truth cleverly juxtaposed in the film. 

SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!

A woman goes missing. Everyone seems to love her expect her husband and his sister who know she is a miserable person. As you learn that she is missing, you read (fabricated) journal entries written by said woman that tend to make the husband look like a violent jerk. It turns out that the husband is kind of a jerk. And a cheater. But he is neither violent, nor a murderer. Except for this journal, a poorly staged crime scene, and the fact that the guy kind of sucks there is no evidence of a murder. Then the wife's  "best friend" starts dropping (fake) bombs. 

A character who seem all too familiar, paints the husband as not only a murder, and cheater, but also  as having an incestuous relationship with his sister and a sociopath. While we support the First Amendment, how would the world be different if the Media was required to cite all sources? 

Thanks to an attorney who knows how to steer the conversation, the husband avoided arrest..for a while.  Ultimately, he is arrested for murder despite the lack of evidence. 

SECOND SPOILER ALERT

You find out that the wife is an evil genius (as my husband noted), and she framed her cheating husband for her murder. But for losing all of her money, the guy may have been executed. What happens next would be impossible, but some women are actually that crazy. 

END OF SPOILERS

The Evolution of a Story.

It is important to consider evolution of a big news story. Something happens. News outlets catch wind of the incident from police scanners, and arrest and booking reports. Someone (suspect, victim, law enforcement, witness, friends, faux friends) talks first. Media develops an angle. People listen to the angle and start talking. Talking becomes "public outcry." Elected Officials, Sheriff, State Attorney, Judge react to said "public outcry" from voters and proceed accordingly. Media continues to report on the story as if the public outcry directed the angle. (It didn't.) The public learns the "facts" from the news, social media, and gossip. 

Lessons to be Learned.

We have the pleasure of working in a jurisdiction with a State Attorney who is tough, and not afraid of a challenge when it comes to sending the guilty-looking guy to prison. If this took place in Duval County, it's likely that Jacksonville Sheriff's Office would have said, "No Body? No Problem!" in the case of this missing wife. Especially when the media/pubic outcry began. 

Part of this story was that the husband's personality was, like most people, not perfect. He didn't react well to the stress and trauma of the situation, and that made him suspicious. The media ran with that suspicion. Because cameras and video cameras are everywhere, it was easier to get a freeze-frame or two to make this guy look like a cheating jerk. Sadly, it also illustrated how we (the people who the media speaks to) were swayed to believe that "cheating jerk" translates to "murderer." Ben Affleck's wife has been waging a war against the Media for years, and therefore this movie acutely made the point that it's a problem. 

We eat it up. We judge. We are quick to conclusions and we never stop and ask, what's the other side of this conversation? The sides get labeled... "conservative," "liberal," "ignorant," "insensitive,"  and maybe "racist." And if you pick a side with an ugly label, you get labeled. It's a terrible, vicious cycle. 

There is a moral to this story, in fact, there are a few.

1) If your significant other goes missing or is murdered, hire a lawyer. 

The biggest mistake that the husband made was that he didn't hire an attorney sooner, but "innocent people don't need lawyers." Wrong! Detectives are not psychics. They pick a theory that is likely handed to them by the media, and they work up a case to go along with their theory. At one point in the movie, the male detective tells the female lead detective, "my wife says he did it," and makes it clear that it's enough for him to agree. These stories are sensational, and detectives, prosecutors, jury members, judges all watch the news or go home to someone who watches the news. 

2)...and follow their advice!

Believe it or not, we actually know what we are talking about. We think it through, and we are not the one who could go to jail, so we think clearly.  Navigating media for a client is a valuable skill. It is important to hire an attorney who has good relationships with media, who understands social media and who know where to find the brutally honest chat rooms and forums. You need someone who knows what to say, and when to say it. Timing is everything. At the end of the day, the media effects you in one important way: it taints the jury pool. Someone has to sit on your jury. There is no way to wholly vet those potential jurors, search their web-browsing history, and get their full story, so you have to make sure your story hits the masses and taints the jury for you levels the playing field. So listen to us and get off line!

3) No one is perfect, not even victims. 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in court when a man who shot another man in the head was sentenced. The victim's mother stood up and testified that her son was "the nicest person, and he did no wrong..." et cetera. The Judge literally stopped her, and clarified that her "perfect" son was actually also carrying a gun, cocaine, $1,100 in cash and had a lengthy record. He respectfully requested that the mother just not exaggerate her son's qualities, Needless to say, she was angry. (She proceeded to storm out of the courtroom.) 

No one wants to speak ill of the dead or missing, but it is misleading. No one deserves to be murdered, but no one is perfect no matter what the posthumous story is. Many times an already-tainted jury doesn't get to hear the negative things about the victim due to rules of evidence so they are just thinking about all the wonderful things they heard on the news. It's not fair. 

4) There is nothing helpful and innocent person suspected of a crime can say. 

Shut up. Every story needs a villain. Take a guess who that will be. Unless your attorney has directed you to speak, zip it. 

5) Happy Wife; Happy Life.

Need we say more? 

If your become a suspect in a crime, contact us at 904-516-5562. 

Plata Schott Attorneys and Counselors at Law is based in Northeast Florida. Their attorneys are licensed to practice in Florida and Federal Court. Learn more at www.plataschott.com.


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