Mar 17, 2015 5:31 PM
Durst murder case: When should the media go to the police?
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) It was a filmmaker, not police, who uncovered a crucial piece of evidence in the murder case against Manhattan real estate millionaire Robert Durst.
The sensational small-screen moments created by HBO's "The Jinx" confronted documentarian Andrew Jarecki with an ethical question that is likely to come up again, given the popularity of true-crime TV: Should a television sleuth's priority lie in making good entertainment or in seeing that justice is served?
Jarecki's team found a Durst writing sample that appears to match the handwriting in a letter sent to Beverly Hills police alerting them to the body of Susan Berman, a friend of Durst's who was killed 15 years ago. Durst was arrested in the slaying last weekend shortly before the finale of "The Jinx," which exhaustively examined Durst's alleged role in three killings.
It's not clear when that writing sample was found, but the filmmakers confronted Durst with that evidence in an April 2012 interview. The filmmakers did not tell authorities about the evidence until October 2012.
It's not clear why it took several months, but Jarecki explained in an interview on ABC on Monday that he wanted to get Durst on film addressing that piece of evidence before it was turned over to the authorities.
"As filmmakers, we have the freedom to do things that maybe the law enforcement authorities wouldn't have," he said on "Good Morning America." ''But at the same time, we didn't want to hold it back if it was going to take forever. ... When we had the reaction, we felt the time was right to show that" to authorities.
The filmmakers also shared with authorities the gripping audio that aired this past Sunday of Durst mumbling that he "killed them all."
Jarecki stopped giving interviews midway through Monday, citing the likelihood he will be called to testify in the case.
There is no legal requirement that a filmmaker or journalist investigating a crime turn over such material to authorities, said Jeannine Pirro, Fox News Channel host and former district attorney in New York's Westchester County, where she investigated the still-unsolved disappearance of Durst's first wife.
"Kudos to Jarecki" and his filmmaking partner Marc Smerling, Pirro said. "They unearthed something that law enforcement didn't unearth. I'm glad they turned it over."
It's a tricky question, though. Journalists investigating a criminal case must keep in mind that their loyalty is to the public they are trying to inform, not to law enforcement, said Susan Zirinsky, senior executive producer at CBS News' crime-focused newsmagazine "48 Hours."
If her team uncovers previously unavailable evidence, her inclination is to report it at the same time authorities are alerted. An important exception is when the information can put someone in danger; then authorities need to know promptly to offer protection, she said.
"You have to be a good journalist first," she said. "But you also have to be a good citizen."
Considering that Durst was free for nearly three years since he became aware of the damaging piece of evidence against him, it seems Jarecki was the one most in danger. In January, he brushed off a question with a joke when he was asked whether he was afraid of Durst. Jarecki admitted to the Times this week, though, that he had security and was nervous.
Zirinsky said she would not second-guess Jarecki's call on when to alert officials, not knowing the specifics.
"This is a tough place to be if you're an independent filmmaker," she said. "What's the right time? How do you approach people and all of that? In these cases, I'm kind of glad I work for an organization that spells out my standards, and if something comes up that is not spelled out we have people to deal with it."
Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker who made the "Paradise Lost" films about the wrongful convictions of teenagers for a murder in West Memphis, Arkansas, said that while he was working on the project, he was given a bloody knife consistent with the murder weapon.
Berlinger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Monday that he immediately went to HBO, and together they decided to turn the knife over to investigators, even though it put their film at risk.
He said he would like to think that he would reach the same conclusion today, but noted the increased pressure to make films as entertaining as possible.
While he called "The Jinx" an amazing television moment, Berlinger said "there's a fine line between investigation and exploitation. There's a fine line between balanced journalism and trial by television."
Even before "The Jinx," there was a growing taste in the media for true-crime stories, as evidenced by the success last fall of the "Serial" podcast. CBS' "48 Hours" announced last week that it was launching a series of "cold case" investigations.
As a six-part series that combined thorough investigation, gripping interviews and dramatic re-creations of key scenes, "The Jinx" took these stories to another level. The ratings aren't in yet, but the series clearly captured the public imagination, and TV producers and documentary makers are surely taking note.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder