Patterico's Pontifications


Headline Suggesting Woman Was Totally Railroaded in Murder Case Turns Out to Be Very Misleading

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 12:16 pm

CBS News has this attention-getting headline:

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 11.51.39 AM

It certainly got my attention.

Before you go on, ask yourself: what does that headline suggest really happened? Formulate a specific answer in your mind, and then read on.

I clicked on the story (which is what they wanted, of course). Here is how it begins:

A 74-year-old woman was released from prison late Monday evening after serving 32 years for a murder committed by her abusive boyfriend.

Mary Virginia Jones walked out of Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood just before midnight to the tears and cheers of family and friends, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Jones was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery in a 1981 shooting death, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan set aside those convictions on Monday, reports CBS Los Angeles.

The district attorney’s office has agreed to accept a plea of no contest to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for Jones’ release. Jones has already served 11,875 days, which exceeds the 11-year maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

So . . . it doesn’t quite sound like what the headline implies, which is: defendant accused of being murderer, prosecutors find out someone else did it and let her go, ergo, she was totally railroaded. It sounds like something else. To find out, you must read all the way to the end of the article. When I did, here’s what I learned. The woman apparently didn’t get a “Battered Women’s Syndrome” instruction, and some USC law students and their activist advisors argued she should have:

Law students at USC’s Post-Conviction Project argued Jones would not have been convicted if the jury had heard testimony on the effects of intimate partner battery, previously known as “Battered Women’s Syndrome.”

Again, that’s the last paragraph of the article.

Apparently the woman does not deny that she was the driver in a kidnapping in which her boyfriend had her drive himself and two drug dealers to an alley, where the boyfriend then shot the drug dealers to death. She just claims she was forced to do it.

So here’s what I now understand, based on reviewing the entire article. Activists say she should have gotten a Battered Women’s Syndrome instruction (despite the general rule that duress is not a defense to murder). A Superior Court Judge agreed and reversed her conviction and set it for a new trial. The D.A., rather than retry a 33-year-old murder case against the driver, decided to offer her a manslaughter offer, evidently (I’m guessing) deciding that was appropriate given the substantial amount of time she had already served for her conduct, together with the fact that the case would likely be difficult to retry after such a long time.

Not quite a case of “OMIGOD TOTALLY INNOCENT WOMAN WAS RAILROADED!!!!!1!!!!1!!” as the headline suggests.

Most people, of course, will just read the headline, and will come away with a totally skewed idea of what happened. This, in turn, will make them more cynical about the system.

The headline writers should be ashamed of themselves. But I bet they aren’t. I bet they are proud — because of all the clicks they got on the story.


DISCLAIMER: As always, I comment on this story in my private capacity and not in my public capacity, and I do not speak on behalf of the office. I have no inside knowledge of this case whatsoever and am opining purely based on public reports.

16 Responses to “Headline Suggesting Woman Was Totally Railroaded in Murder Case Turns Out to Be Very Misleading”

  1. Ding.

    Patterico (c29bec)

  2. Capital “J” Journaists need a graduate degree to learn how to write misleading headlines properly.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  3. I’m surprised the sub-headline wasn’t something like, “Will the Koch Brothers be brought in for questioning ?”

    Elephant Stone (6a6f37)

  4. Maybe if headline writers were required to actually read the entire story, things would improve.

    Or not.

    gramps, the original (e6edf4)

  5. The result seems reasonable. 30 years for being an accessory to murder, under duress, isn’t a wrist slap.

    But yes, the headline is misleading, and no the first such. I expected to see some “witness recanted” or other mildly exculpatory evidence rather than the total exoneration implied.

    Kevin M (b11279)

  6. Maybe if headline writers were required to actually read the entire story, things would improve.

    They would probably alter the story, not the headline.

    Kevin M (b11279)

  7. Maybe if headline writers were required to actually read the entire story, things would improve.

    Yes, they would. They wouldn’t be perfect, but this sort of thing happens too many times in cases where the error achieves nothing at all for anybody, it’s just dumb.

    But at least you knew that the stories and headlines are not written by the same people. A lot of people don’t know that, and are really puzzled when a headline doesn’t reflect what the story says, and especially when it says the exact opposite of the story, because the subeditor skimmed the story and jumped to a conclusion about what it said.

    Milhouse (b95258)

  8. They would probably alter the story, not the headline.

    No, I don’t think subbies have that authority. They’re supposed to read the story and come up with a snappy headline that reflects it, but too often they don’t bother reading the whole thing.

    Milhouse (b95258)

  9. LAT to demand compensation for her wrongful incarceration in 10…9…8…7…

    askeptic (2bb434)

  10. Alternate headline: “Thrill Killer Freed On Technicality; Helpless Sex Slave Of Real Murderer Says Judge”.

    nk (dbc370)

  11. I’m not sure the headline is wrong, per se, and I think this is the result of a disconnect between colloquial english and legal english.

    In *legal* english, it’s quite clear that she murdered the guy – she was part of a conspiracy which led to the guy’s death. She may have had no intent to kill the guy, she may not even have known that the guy was going to be killed, but because she participated in a kidnapping and the result of that kidnapping was that the victim was killed, she is guilty of murder.

    In *colloquial* english, I think most people would say she isn’t a murderer. She is a kidnapper, sure, but she didn’t pull the trigger, there’s no evidence she knew of/intended/approved of the killing, etc.

    The problem here is that the same word represents both a precise technical term *and* an imprecise colloquial term. My expectation is a newspaper headline uses the colloquial term, not the technical one, unless the journal is a technical journal aimed at specialists.

    aphrael (5cffd4)

  12. aphrael,

    The judge questioned her intent, not only in the murder but in the kidnappping that lead to the capital murder charge. Since the jury did not get the battered woman charge, the jury did not, according to the judge, find the necessary facts to support either charge.

    So. maybe the headline is correct, if poorly stated.

    Kevin M (b11279)

  13. The headline was intended, repeat intended, to get people to read the story. Any conveyance of truthful information is a happy coincidence.

    nk (dbc370)

  14. so a convicted once and self admitted felon is let out of jail … innocent has nothing to do with this female …

    JeffC (488234)

  15. Aphrael, it’s true that there is a colloquial sense in which she didn’t “commit” the murder because she didn’t pull the trigger; but in that sense she was never in prison in the first place for “committing” it, and nobody had ever claimed she “committed” it. In that sense thousands of people are in prison for their parts in murders they didn’t “commit”.

    Tell me honestly, would you expect this subeditor to write the same headline for Charles Manson, if he is ever released? After all, it would just as accurate. Manson did not personally commit any of the murders he’s in prison for. So can we expect “Manson Freed After XX Years In Prison For Murders He Didn’t Commit”? Or would you consider that a dishonest headline? If so, then why is this one not equally wrong, albeit saved from actual dishonesty by our assumption that the subbie didn’t bother reading the story all the way through?

    Milhouse (b95258)

  16. I saw this on the one of the news programs on TV last night. The headline confirmed to me, who is not a lawyer, and what the news program left me with the impression of and that is that the woman in question was wrongfully accused of a murder she had no involvement in and that she was an innocent party. The headline did not make me want to read the rest of the story.

    Headlines are for skimming and if I find something I might be interested in, then I’ll read the story, otherwise I just got the information from the headline.

    In this case the heading and TV reporter gave me bad information.

    Tanny O'Haley (c0a74e)

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