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August-September 2014

A Fatuous Fascination With the Femme Fatale


Michael H. Fox

A couple of years back, televisions and computers across the US were glued to the case of Casey Anthony, a mother accused of facilitating the death of her daughter. On the surface, the facts of the case seemed relatively mundane: a parent with little interest in a child and a big desire to party. Prisons throughout the country are filled with inmates raised by such parents.

Indeed, what is interesting, or more appropriately, grossly disturbing--is the public's morbid, almost rabid fascination with the case. How and why this particular case grabbed the country's attention begs discussion and analysis.

The media love female criminals. Men breaking the law for their own selfish motives might earn a short slot on Investigation Discovery. Women doing the same become the subjects of T.V. mini-series and hollywood dramas.

My own entrance into the bowels of the criminal injustice dragon began with the case of a woman. Charged with the murder of a child at a facility for the mentally retarded in 1974, she was found innocent, retried, (no double jeopardy provision in Japan), and remanded back to the district court. Ultimately exonerated in the year 2000, she spent 26 years on trial and was the national scapegoat. Massacred by the media and pulverized by the public, many reporters and prominent commentators still view her with fear and loathing.

Recently, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided a similar case-a woman who was tried in the media. In 1989, twenty five year old Debra Milke, was arrested for the shooting death of her four year old son. Nobody says Milke pulled the trigger. The actual shooter in the case is one of two men who took the child to see Santa at a local Phoenix mall. Both pointed fingers at each other. One mentioned Debra as the perpetrator, but withdrew the accusation and refused to testify. A rogue detective claimed Debra confessed despite the fact that no confession exists on paper, audio tape or film.

Former Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels espoused, "If you repeat a lie enough, it becomes the truth." The media gobbled and broadcasted the story over and over. The Goebbels strategy worked: Debra was convicted and sent to Arizona's death row.

After losing appeal after appeal, in September, 2013, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, granted relief. The state must either retry or free Debra. She has been bonded, and the state-despite having no evidence- is putting up the façade of a retrial.

Legal arguments apart, the public's fascination with women criminals is disturbing. Women are always guilty until proven innocent. Women with even minor tangential participation draw grossly unfair sentences and are locked away forever-guilt by association. And with the increasing presence of TV cameras in the courtroom, we should expect no signs of abatement in the near future.