Jul 9, 2011

(Washington Post) - Here’s a quiz: Which names do you recognize?

Aja. N’Kiah. Tatianna. Brittany. Caylee.

All five girls, authorities said, were killed by their mothers. Yet it’s likely that, besides their family and friends, not many people remember sisters Aja Fogle, 5, N’Kiah Fogle, 6, Tatianna Jacks, 11, and Brittany Jacks, 16. In 2008, when their decaying bodies were found in their mother’s Southeast Washington rowhouse, their faces weren’t splashed on the covers of magazines, and their deaths weren’t the subject of debate on national news programs.

The contrast to the story of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, who also died in 2008, and whose face has graced numerous magazine pages and prime-time television specials, could not be more stark.

Banita Jacks, now 36, the mother of the four girls found dead in Washington, was convicted of her daughters’ murders and sentenced to 120 years in prison. Caylee’s killer has not been convicted, though prosecutors charged her mother, Casey Anthony, 25, with her daughter’s slaying. A Florida jury acquitted her of the murder charge this past week, and she will spend a handful of additional days in prison for lying to the police.

Prior to Jacks’s conviction, she was known by few outside Washington. A Google search revealed about 26,000 hits for stories mentioning Jacks, vs. more than 73 million hits, and growing, for Anthony.

How is it that the tragic death of one little girl could attract so much more attention than the tragic deaths of four sisters?

The easy answer is that the disparity in coverage is about race and class. Media critics argue that if Caylee had been black, her disappearance and death would never have received as much attention. There were indeed sharp contrasts: Caylee, white, from a middle-income home in suburban Orlando, in the shadow of Disney World; the Jacks sisters, black, from a lower-income Southeast Washington neighborhood besieged by drugs and crime, just blocks from the Capitol.

Those differences may have played a part, but there were other reasons that Caylee became a household name and Aja and her sisters did not. The way the Anthony case unfolded in the courts — and especially the way the state of Florida handled the prosecution — has a lot to do with the outcry now in the court of public opinion.

By the time Caylee’s remains were discovered in December 2008, the news media were already fascinated with the story. Caylee’s grandparents, not her mother, had reported her missing a month after she was last seen with Casey Anthony, and more than 2,000 volunteers had descended on the family’s neighborhood in the summer and fall of that year to look for the little girl. Images of volunteers searching the woods for clues about a missing child attract viewers, and the more viewers who tune in, the more media outlets want in on the story. Caylee’s grandparents spoke often on national television about their missing granddaughter. Web sites, such as HelpFindCaylee.com, were created, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children got involved.

Florida laws are different from those in most other states and the District of Columbia, allowing evidence gathered by prosecutors to be released to the public almost immediately. That meant everyone could see photos of Casey Anthony partying in the days after her daughter disappeared; the images weren’t sealed until trial. And Florida courts, unlike those in D.C., allow news cameras inside, so the month-long trial played out on live television.

The Jacks case was dramatically different. Although family members had not seen the girls in about a year, including over the holidays, they never reported them missing or appealed to the media for help. After the judge announced his verdict, the attorneys gave news conferences outside the courthouse for local media, but afternoon television programs weren’t interrupted, and no national network anchors were camped out with experts ready to discuss the case in prime time.


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