Have we, as a society, completely given up on patience? Are we so intent on instant gratification that we can no longer wait for the slow turns of the wheels of justice? Are we inclined to do away with trials altogether, and replace them with lynchings and witch hunts?
Based on recent events, that certainly seems to be so. Exhibit A is the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Cops and officials typically are slow and deliberative. They have to be: Things they say and do can ruin a criminal case.
The general public has such restraint. As a result, while investigators are tight-lipped, all manner of loudmouths and talking heads compete to fill the vacuum of information. They speculate, and then treat the speculation as fact, and then extrapolate from the speculation to spawn new generations of fevered fantasy.
That’s why, only after days and weeks of hearing the tale of an angelic child clutching a bag of Skittles being gunned down by a racist vigilante, did we finally start to get a trickle of a rebuttal that, well, maybe the story wasn’t so black and white after all.
Yet by then, the horses and their posterior ejections had already left the barn.
To a minor, but very disturbing degree, that rush to speculation also occurred recently with the tragic accidental shooting in Harlem of Elle' Kelly.
When we’re reporting on such things, we look to one official source for determining whether a victim is still alive: the county coroner. And we know, many times, the victim will lie in the hospital, kept alive by machines until their organs can be transplated. Thus, we wait for that official word.
The 13-year-old was pronounced dead less than 24 hours after having been admitted to the hospital, yet in the interim, cyberspace and phone lines were crammed with people declaring her dead – some of them, in a perverse sense, sounding as if they wanted to be the first to say it so they could claim some macabre trophy.
A reporter in Thomson said one caller even accused her radio station of withholding the news to give the shooter’s defense more time. With that level of stupidity, it’s a mystery that the caller remembers to inhale and exhale through his open mouth.
And then we had the busybody who absolutely, positively, could not wait for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab to perform a simple blood test.
Cops frequently are frustrated at the GBI backlog. The technicians on Law and Order SVU can extract DNA from a wad of gum and find a suspect before the next commercial, but here in the real world the GBI crime lab can take weeks to perform a test on a blood sample.
That’s what happened after Jenna Sevigny crashed her car in Evans on Feb. 20. When you have a wreck all alone at 3 o’clock in the morning, the cops understandably will wonder why. So they had blood drawn at the hospital, and sent the sample to the GBI to check for alcohol.
They found it. She registered .20, more than double the legal limit. When the results came back nearly five weeks after the wreck, the investigator called her, she turned herself in and was charged. By all accounts, she’s meeting her legal obligations.
But between the time of the wreck and the time the crime lab finished its work, there was a vacuum of information. Into that void came an anonymous letter that was printed and mailed to Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle and others, including me.
In essence, it speculated that since Sevigny at that point (two weeks after the wreck) had not been charged, that she would not be charged. And the anonymous writer then goes on to allege that the absence of such charges can only be because of “connections” preventing it from happening.
Of course, the blood tests and subsequent charges against Sevigny put the lie to the letter. But how do you rebut the unaccountable message of the anonymous, especially when there’s no way to know how far it’s been spread?
For years, we’ve blamed television dramas for making people believe every crime, no matter how complicated, can be solved within the hour. In the age of Internet-driven social networking, I think it’s more than that: it’s a matter of the village gossips being newly empowered, and no more responsible or ethical than they were when innocent people were murdered in the Salem witch trials.
I suppose we should just be relieved that Cotton Mather didn’t have a blog.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)