Were All Rooting for You!

The medias unseemly love affair with Sheriff Mike Carona

Those who doubt the demise of the mainstream media missed the July 24 edition of CNN's Larry King Live. Featuring news of the abduction/killing of a 5-year-old Orange County girl, the program was as exploitative as it was trite. "Tonight, crime author and celebrity trial watcher, Dominick Dunne," King said to open his show. "We're an hour away from an emotional funeral service for little Samantha Runnion. Hear his take on her awful murder."

Dunne's "take"—why do we need a take on a murder?—would, of course, have to wait for King to plug his guest's commercial enterprises. "His most recent book, Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments, is now out in trade paperback," said King. "He's the host of the series Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice. It's such a big hit on Court TV that they have signed him to do several new episodes for which we congratulate him! He's of course a special correspondent for Vanity Fair!"

With the aggrandizement over for the moment, King's enthusiasm waned, and he began the interview again. "And we'll start, Dominick, by getting your take on this whole tragic story."

I waited to hear the insights Dunne would offer to justify his solo, hour-long appearance on a show about Runnion's death and the arrest of 27-year-old Alejandro Avila.

"Well," Dunne said, "this is one of the saddest stories that the country has for, you know, I mean, this is heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking."

(Can there be any doubt why Erin Runnion, Samantha's mother, told King on the following night that although she watched television news coverage of her daughter's death, she "would turn it off the second any commentary began"?)

"What do you make of the police work in this matter?" said King.

"Brilliant! Brilliant!" said Dunne. "And I love hearing the police chief, and I've watched him, and whom, I think, is great by the way."

Dunne's unidentified "police chief" is, in fact, Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona. The mistake can be forgiven in light of King's imperial blunders—the notoriously unprepared host called Carona "Mr. Caruso" and identified the Reverend Robert Schuller Jr., who conducted televised services at Samantha's memorial, as "Reverend Shula."

Even if they bungled the IDs, King and Dunne had a motive for praising the sheriff. "He acknowledges the help of the media," explained the high-society reporter. "Because the media has done an incredible job."

Dunne was right about one thing: Carona is brilliant, especially when it comes to the media. In Orange County, public officials regularly sneer at reporters and don't seem to understand the resulting negative press coverage. But our sheriff understands a simple principle: most reporters, even the hard-nosed bastards, turn mushy after a compliment. No one—not even the county's most public-relations savvy politician, Supervisor and soon-to-be Assemblyman Todd Spitzer—can match Carona when it comes to making the insecure mainstream media feel important.

During the height of the Runnion case, Carona could not have stroked egos better. At a July 19 nationally televised press conference, he said, "The media—you have been our allies all the way along, and we thank you for that." Less than three minutes later, Carona reiterated the point: "I want to thank you, the press. Thank you very much for all your help." Five days and many interviews later, the sheriff was still sharing glory. "You all in the media," he told CNN's Miles O'Brien, "were our best friends."

In exchange, the media offered Carona daily hagiographies. The sheriff is "an amazing guy," "a great law-enforcement leader," "America's sheriff," and "a national hero," the public was told. Nobody dared mention, for example, that it was Carona who launched the Runnion investigation with more than a hint of hysteria. In a move that certainly raised tensions as well as his own profile, he claimed wrongly that the little girl was a victim of a "serial killer" who "will strike again." The imperfect record doesn't end there: Carona presides over one of the most hostile, violence-prone county jails in California; he has been unable or unwilling to civilize a couple of thug deputies; some of his officers lied under oath in a murder trial and were never reprimanded; and he maintains a bizarrely secretive "advisory council" of wealthy businessman who get undisclosed perks.

But none of those serious blemishes mattered under the softening gaze of a hero-seeking national media. Greta van Susteren of Fox News—the self-described bias-free network—epitomized the media's concern with reality and objectivity. "Sheriff," she said, "we're all rooting for you."

I like Carona personally, but is it a good idea for the media to be his cheerleader? You don't have to search far in Orange County history for an answer. After the 1998 killing of a baby boy in Laguna Niguel, the Sheriff's Department arrested the teenage mother, Shantae Molina. She was charged with first-degree murder, despite her detailed explanation of the shooting as tragically accidental. Before a jury was chosen, a deputy claimed he had irrefutable proof that Molina had placed the barrel of the gun to the baby's head and pulled the trigger. That claim earned sensational and widespread news coverage; along with LA-based TV and radio stations, the LA Times and Orange County Register and now-defunct OCN jumped so quickly to the prosecution's aid that it's difficult to imagine any prospective juror missed the point: Molina was guilty. Based on that deputy's same claim, a prosecutor said he was so offended by Molina's alleged action that he contemplated seeking the death penalty. But proof of a contact wound never materialized during the trial. Unamused by the Sheriff Department's fabrication of evidence, a jury voted 13-0 for Molina's acquittal. She has since filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-prosecution suit.

As in the Molina case, Carona's department slyly hopes to sway Avila's future jury. Here, too, they have been busy leaking inflammatory, pro-prosecution information to an eager media. After his July 19 press conference, Carona earned kudos for his policing skills as well as for his fairness and professionalism. He said repeatedly that divulging key evidence against Avila would not be proper. "What is now most important is that we protect the integrity of this case for its eventual prosecution," he said. "As a result, many aspects of this investigation and evidence that we have confirmed cannot be discussed openly at this time."

But as Carona played good cop, his deputies did the dirty work behind-the-scenes. They leaked—no, poured out—information that allegedly supports Avila's guilt. On July 24, Times reporters Jack Leonard and Christine Hanley cited "a law-enforcement source" to publish a story suggesting that Avila's cell-phone use placed him near the crime scene. The reporters acknowledged that they were not allowed to review any supporting evidence but went ahead with the story anyway. The leaker, whose identity was protected by the paper, has also asserted that the government's case is bolstered by credit card transactions, fibers, DNA and physical evidence such as a scratch on Avila's body. Other Times reporters joined in the pretrial media demonization of Avila by announcing on July 20 that he had rented—gasp—"a pair of X-rated" videos last December. Is it any wonder that reactionary local talk show hosts have already called for Avila to "fry"?

There are those even within the Weekly newsroom who have argued that it's inappropriate to question law enforcement when a case involves the murder of a little girl. Said a colleague, "I have nothing but rage when I think about this crime." But the story did not end with the grotesque killing; nor was the case closed when Carona's detectives arrested Avila, a poor Riverside County factory worker. If the Molina trial reminded us of anything, it is that the government—whose awesome resources include the ability to use the increasingly subservient media for its own aims—must still prove its case in court.

Is a fair trial possible for Avila in Orange County—where the popular reigning sheriff has declared that he is "100 percent certain" of Avila's guilt; President George W. Bush has applauded Carona for catching "the killer"; deputies are running a pretrial public relations campaign for a conviction; and a local newspaper columnist is crusading for the death penalty?

USC law professor Susan Estrich is doubtful about Avila's chances in court, suggesting in a July 25 Fox News interview that his defenders would have to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt that he's innocent." Failing that, "you know, they . . . I don't want to say that they are going to string him up, but pretty close."

The brilliant Carona, who is now meeting with Republican campaign strategists in hopes of parlaying his newfound stature into higher political office, certainly understands Estrich's point.

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