Saturday, April 16, 2011

Some victims are more victim-y than others

I have already admitted my weakness for true-crime television. Not all the time, mind you; just when I'm too tired to use my brain much and too dumb to go to bed instead. That's how I found myself watching 20/20 last night. The show focused on the 2007 murder of Rhoni Reuter, a case that got lots of attention due to the fact that the victim was carrying the child of former Chicago Bears player Shaun Gayle. I say the show focused on Reuter's murder, but really it focused on the fact that Gayle agreed to be interviewed exclusively on ABC.

I know they have to choose a framework for these stories, but it's awfully annoying when the framework they choose is a bad fit for the facts. In this case, the framework was: Poor, grieving, noble Shaun Gayle! His "girlfriend of 18 years" was murdered, along with his baby, and then he had to endure the indignity of being considered the most likely suspect, first by the police and then in the public eye. Now that someone else has been convicted, it's natural enough to structure the story around Gayle's innocence, and that's obviously the reason he wanted to do the show in the first place. But there's a much more interesting story they could have told if only they weren't so committed to flattering Shaun Gayle. (In fact, the writeup on the 20/20 website is more interesting than the program was.) Here's the summary from the press release:
The headlines exploded when it was discovered that the handsome sports legend was the unborn baby's father, and when rumors circulated that he and Rhoni did not have a committed relationship, investigators put Gayle's hero status aside and became very suspicious. Then more confusion: Not only did the famous athlete provide an alibi, but he pointed the finger at someone else -- a Polish model he once dated who, he says, ended up stalking him. For almost two years the case remained a mystery, until police made a startling discovery... There was someone else who had been obsessed with Shaun Gayle -- his real estate agent, Marni Yang. But it's how the police lay a trap for this woman that has everyone surprised, resulting in a secret recording with the killer's own words detailing exactly what happened.
That "Polish model he once dated"? When the interviewer, Juju Chang, inquired, very gently, as to the extent of their relationship, Gayle replied: "We spent some time together." She asked, still gently, for clarification, and he repeated himself. He meant that they'd had sex. And, it turns out, they had sex not many many years earlier (like, before Gayle and Reuter's eighteen-year relationship began), but fairly shortly before Reuter's murder. At least, that's what I read between the lines, because 20/20 didn't ask Gayle to answer the obvious questions like, "Were you cheating on Rhoni? Did you cheat on her a lot during your 18-year relationship?"

Oh, and "his real estate agent" -- the one who actually did commit the murder? He'd "spent time with" her, too.

You might start to wonder how a stand-up guy like this happens to collect so many dangerously obsessed women. You might start to think he was perhaps being less than totally honest with any or all of them. 20/20 did not give voice to those questions, unless you count an interview with the victim's brother early in the hour, with questions like: Did he think it was odd that Gayle and Rhoni hadn't married after eighteen years? But they backed off that angle as quickly as they brought it up. And they mentioned only in passing, and rather late in the game, that the murderer, Marni Yang, had sex with Gayle the night before the murder.

When Gayle testified in court, the Chicago Sun-Times knew what the headline should be:
Ex-Bear Shaun Gayle says he had sex with Marni Yang night before killing

The night before his pregnant, long-time lover was gunned down in her Deerfield home, former Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle had sex with the woman accused of pulling the trigger.
The Chicago papers had been covering the story all along, but that still came as a surprise, because up to that point Gayle had been insisting that he had "a business relationship" with Yang. The papers took him him at his word that her "crush" on him was entirely the product of obsessive delusions -- right up until he was forced to admit otherwise in court. Knowing all of that makes it a lot harder to feel sorry for poor Shaun Gayle. Imagine if the police hadn't investigated the possibility of his involvement or counted on him to help as the investigation pointed elsewhere? (Oh, and look at this, from the Chicago Tribune's report the day after the murder: "'Gayle is assisting police in the investigation and is not considered a suspect,' Deerfield police said in a prepared statement Thursday night. Police have not named anyone as a suspect in the case." Kind of weakens the "he was unjustly suspected" angle.)

There seems to be no question that the right person is in jail. But when it comes to 20/20, it's not justice I'm worried about, just satisfying, non-intelligence-insulting television. Don't think they were sitting on the he-was-having-sex-with-the-killer detail so they could spring it on the viewer as a third-act surprise. They were downplaying it lest they have to ask Gayle an uncomfortable question. They were pretending those details wouldn't make any sentient person say, "Wait, what?!" and ask for clarification.

A better telling of this story would have focused on the point of view of the victim -- the dead woman, the one who was seven months pregnant with the child of a man who had apparently been cheating on her throughout their eighteen-year relationship up to the day before she died. And a more honest take would have been less gentle with that man, who talks about having sex with women other than his girlfriend like it's an involuntary muscle spasm. (From that Sun-Times story about Gayle's admission of having slept with Yang: "'From time to time, it would change into a personal relationship,' Gayle said, describing their sexual encounters as occurring 'roughly two to three times in the course of a year.'" Compare that with this, from a Chicago Tribune story published a few days earlier, before Gayle testified under oath: "Gayle said Wednesday that he and Yang were friends and business associates for years and that she helped him on some real estate deals. Prosecutors say Yang and Gayle dated, but Gayle insisted he never dated Yang and wasn't aware of her desire to be his girlfriend." He just wasn't aware!)

When I watch these shows I mainly want to hear about the investigation and the trial. I don't mind a little pressing on the emotional details if it fits the story. But I do mind burying inconvenient details to paint a nicer picture of your exclusive interview subject. And I'm not really interested in seeing Shaun Gayle play the grieving boyfriend and father if you're not going to ask him to squirm just a little about being a sleaze while the woman was still alive, and a liar after she died.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also watched the show, and share many of your reactions. He certainly showed no remorse for the interesting way he "spent time with" several people at the same time.