Without a Hook, Murder Cases Fall Into Obscurity

Murder needs an angle.

There has to be a hook for all-out media coverage, for the day-by-day pounding that lifts a killing into a full-scale event that focuses public attention on the crime.

That sad fact of journalistic life is evident in two recent cases.

In Compton last weekend, drive-by killers murdered three people standing outside a home who were getting ready to go to a skating rink. Their deaths brought Compton's murder toll to 79 for this year, rapidly approaching the 84 for 1994.

Although the press reported on the the murders, the coverage was no match for the frenzy accompanying the recent death of model Linda Sobek and the arrest of the photographer accused of murdering her. Compton's terror couldn't beat the story of the blond model and the Hollywood photographer.

We make decisions like this all the time, elevating some stories to lofty heights, dropping others down to obscurity, without the time to ponder the unintended consequences of our off-the-cuff decision making.

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I was forced to think of the consequences Tuesday when the chief of the district attorney's office in Compton told me that media neglect of the city's death toll had hurt his efforts to increase his prosecutorial staff.

"I don't know what it is that drives the media to be interested in a community," said Peter Bozanich. "There is not a great deal of emphasis on what happens in Compton."

I had called Bozanich while checking on the Compton murders.

Bozanich did not end up in Compton by choice. He had a beef with his boss, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, over the O.J. Simpson case and the deployment of deputy district attorneys.

At the time of their row, Bozanich was director of branch and area operations for Garcetti. In that job, he was in charge of the D.A.'s offices in communities throughout Los Angeles County.

"The district attorney and I split," Bozanich said. "We had differences professionally and ethically."

For one thing, Bozanich said he made it known that he did not like the way the prosecution stood behind Mark Fuhrman, the racist-talking former L.A. detective.

"I was critical of using Fuhrman as a witness, but it wasn't my decision to make," he said. Now, he said, "the juries here think we are covering up for racist cops. But how do you blame them for such a perception?"

Another, and even more decisive, reason for the break, he said, was differences over increasing the staff of the Compton office.

In Long Beach, he said, "they have 40 lawyers chasing 10 criminal courts. In Compton, there are 45, chasing 19 courts."

Bozanich said, "I wanted more staff down here. It was very important to staff this office with good investigators, with good people."

So, Garcetti sent him to Compton, figuring, I guess, that if the guy is so worried about the place, let him work there.

Bozanich said he felt his pleas for help were ignored because Compton is a backwater, as far as news coverage is concerned.

"The media is the watchdog, and as long as the media doesn't report what happens, there is no pressure," he said.

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Think about what would happen if the Compton murders were on TV every night, if the media masters turned the city's tragedy into a compelling story of urban fear and heartbreak. They know how. Look what happened with the story of the model and the photographer.

With Compton on the screen, and in the papers, Garcetti would put more deputies in that branch. Look how he beefed up the Simpson prosecution team for the "trial of the century." Look how Sheriff Sherman Block added more detectives to the Linda Sobek murder case.

It's a terrible way to run the criminal justice system. But that's what it takes in today's high-publicity society.

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