His 15 days of fame over: Karr chase a dead end
By James Alan Fox
August 30, 2006

The only real surprise about the news exposing John Mark Karr as a fraud is that it took two weeks to confirm what seemed so clear at the outset. In the meantime, this pathetic man was granted his fantasy come true, being part of the JonBenet Ramsey saga.

From the start there were more flaws in Karr’s tale than in the ceiling of the Ted Williams Tunnel, enough to dub the entire debacle, the Big Fib. This is not just 20/20 hindsight now that Karr has been proven to be a fake and a liar. Back on Aug. 17, shortly after Karr’s arrest, I told CNN, NBC and others, “You have to take his confession with a whole shaker of salt,” and urged that we all reserve judgment, at least until the DNA results were in.

The red flags were all there, even before Karr boarded his champagne flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles:

Regardless of these and other questions, Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Mary Lacy pursued Karr aggressively. She is now being blasted for poor judgment and for wasting public funds on the Karr chase. Some critics are asking for Lacy to resign.

While we can second-guess the DA’s maneuvers, it is more the news media - especially the cable television networks - that promoted the story and failed to show restraint in their coverage. Understandably, the ratings competition among CNN, MSNBC and others is so fierce that no one wants to take it slow.

Karr is hardly the first person to have falsely confessed to a high-profile crime. The compulsive confessor phenomenon has been a concern at least as long ago as the Boston Strangler investigation. The difference between today’s media environment and that of an earlier era is the existence of round-the-clock cable news channels that thirst for juicy material to fill the hours of airtime and satellite technology that allows them to provide live coverage of breaking news events - such as the arrival of Karr’s flight into LAX.

Rather than just discuss the plausibility of his admissions, TV interviewers probed expert guests on what would have motivated Karr to kill JonBenet - hypothetically, of course - if he loved her as deeply as he claimed. In addition, news reporters pursued every angle of Karr’s life - his background, sexual tastes and teaching career, as if he truly warranted this celebrity-like attention. Lost in the media hype of John Karr was the important difference between shedding light on a crime vs. a spotlight on a suspected criminal.

Our court system, of course, operates on the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. Court-TV and other channels need to adopt a similar approach: “Obscure until proven infamous.”

As of today, John Mark Karr has officially had his 15 days of fame. It is now time for the media, and the rest of us, to forget he ever existed - no book or movie deals about his travels and tribulations. Let him live the rest of his years as the nobody he is in reality, outside of his fantasies and delusions of importance.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.