“OWS MURDER LINK.”
That’s how the New York Post‘s front page (7/11/12) announced a report that DNA from a 2004 crime scene had supposedly been matched with DNA from a chain used to hold open a subway gate in an Occupy Wall Street protest. Inside, under the headline “OWS Link to ’04 Gal Slay,” the paper had 37 paragraphs on the story, along with three large photographs with a caption asserting that “DNA from a March Occupy protest (above) has been linked to the murder” of Juilliard student Sarah Fox.
The New York Daily News, for its part, had “OWS Shocker: DNA From Protest Linked to ’04 Juilliard Slay” over a 15-paragraph report–teased on the front page as “New DNA Shock in Fox Case.”
The New York Times headline (7/11/12) was “DNA at Protest Scene Is Said to Be Linked to 2004 Killing”–“is said to be” turning out to be the key words. Because the next day’s news on the story was, basically, never mind.
“DNA Match Tying Protest to 2004 Killing Is Doubted,” was the Times‘ July 12 headline, referring to an anonymous official’s disclosure that
it appeared that the DNA recovered from skin cells on the slain woman’s portable compact disc player and from the chain found this year came from a Police Department employee who works with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The Daily News (7/12/12) went with “Lab: ‘Rats’!” to report the retraction, which was given somewhat more space (21 paragraphs) than the original allegation, though with no mention on the front page.
The New York Post (7/12/12), on the other hand, indicated no ambiguity about which it thought was more important, a sensational charge against a progressive protest group or the smear’s subsequent evaporation: It gave its follow-up to the previous day’s front-page story four whole paragraphs, under the headline “’04 Slay DNA ‘Contaminated.'” (In the online edition, they found room for three more paragraphs.)
The story was illuminating about the unreliability of police lab work, as well as highlighting the dystopian consequences of treating every petty crime–or, more likely, every petty crime with political overtones–as though it were a CSI episode.
But bigger than the problem of treating a police lab report as if it were peer-reviewed science is the failure of common sense: Even if the DNA match were real, it would suggest that someone who touched a crime victim’s CD player–either before or potentially well after her death, since the player sat in the park for several days before it was found–also touched a chain that was propping open a gate in a busy subway station. That’s hardly a responsible basis for linking a mass political movement to a killing.
As Yahoo! News pointed out (7/12/12):
The reported connection was met with skepticism by crime scene experts, who said DNA databases regularly turn up matches, which are usually debunked without, say, making the front page of the New York Post.
On the other hand, most DNA matches don’t give you a chance to insinuate that a political movement dedicated to criticizing economic inequality is really a nest of criminals.