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In late 2008, a series of crimes connected to Reservoir Road shocked the city. Victims of robberies were shot point blank by their assailant. Three victims died. News accounts of the crimes detailed the gritty scenes, what was taken, where the victims were wounded or killed. A Times story reported on the uneasiness the crimes created in the surrounding neighborhoods.
As with most stories about unsolved crimes, writing about the case was largely a matter of reading between the lines and gleaning background information from the public records. The Little Rock Police Department — like most others around the country — routinely deflects questions concerning the details of ongoing investigations. In our experience, until a case is adjudicated to the satisfaction of a judge and jury, on-the-record access to information like crime scene data or ballistics reports is just not to be had.
But now comes “Crime 360,” an A&E series that follows homicide investigations through the eyes of the police. The show brings cameras in from literally the first moments after a crime, crossing the yellow tape with evidence collection experts, doing high-tech computer recreations of the murders, and even going into the detectives' bullpen downtown to listen in as they develop theories about the crime.
An episode that aired in late June featured the Reservoir Road robbery/homicides. A man named Brandon Johnson was eventually arrested, allegedly with two of the dead men's wallets in his apartment. That case hasn't yet gone to trial. A disclaimer at the end of “Crime 360” reminds viewers that Johnson is innocent until proven guilty.
Lt. Terry Hastings, of the Little Rock Police Department, says the department has worked with A&E before and has a good relationship with the network. A big incentive for the police department to participate in “Crime 360” was access to specialized equipment — a large, camera-like device that can make an exact 3-D representation of a crime scene.
“It's been used on a couple of homicides,” Hastings says. “They came and trained our crime scene technicians on how to use it.”
But the experience hasn't been so rosy for everyone involved. Pulaski County prosecuting attorney Larry Jegley says he's butted heads with producers over their involvement in the Reservoir Road case.
“They tried to wear us out about going down to the crime lab and hanging out while they tested, and I said no,” Jegley says. “They just raised all kinds of fluff, wanting access. I said I wasn't going to have any part in exploiting other people's misery for commercial gain. I didn't agree to it.”
One big question is whether A&E gets special treatment because they're providing equipment to the police department. Hastings says that's not the case.
“They don't do anything until we're pretty well done with the investigation. A lot of the stuff is a reenactment of what transpired,” he says. “These guys need a lot more depth than any of the reporters around here would care to want. They don't just come in and film the scene. They stay with us and track it.”
Not to editorialize here, but: Where do we sign up?
Jegley anticipated that reaction. “What I told the chief was, do you want (Channels) 4, 7, 11, 16, the Times and the Democrat-Gazette riding along and watching all this stuff?” he said. “I just don't think it's a good precedent. But everybody wants to be a star and that's what a lot of this is about.”
Hastings says the police department has access to the specialized equipment as long as they are under contract with A&E. The real question though, is whether or not it helps make cases. Jegley says he hasn't seen any evidence of that yet.
“I haven't had a case-file over here using that equipment,” he says. “At some point the technology gets in the way of what the job is over there.”
Jegley is even more concerned with everyone getting a fair trial.
“I don't know that it's going to hurt anybody's chances but it's going to make jury selection a little difficult,” Jegley says. “I just want the defendant to get a fair trial and I want the state to get a fair trial. Extensive pre-trial publicity can cause problems.”