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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Law- "Perverted Justice" in Darke County Ohio

The Richmond Paladium-Item has a fascinating story today by Don Fasnacht about "Perverted Justice." It begins:

GREENVILLE, Ohio -- Tactics used in a sting operation aimed at Internet sex predators are raising questions about the ethics of one of America's major television networks -- NBC.

During the weekend of March 24-26, 17 men were arrested after they came to a local address anticipating a sexual encounter with someone between the ages of 13 and 15.

Three organizations took an active part in luring the men to Greenville -- the Darke County Sheriff's Office, NBC and Perverted Justice, a West Coast group dedicated to getting those locked up who troll the Internet for underage sex.

NBC planned to use the outcome of the sting operation as fodder for its Dateline series. NBC paid the expenses and set up some rules.

The Washington Post Sunday reported that NBC paid Perverted Justice a sum in the low six figures for its role in the Ohio sting.

In a Sunday story, that newspaper cited "news media observers" saying "the sting crossed some ethical boundaries that could place the network in an awkward legal position."

Locally, media experts are also asking questions.

"It's unusual that a media company would pay for the news," Ball State University journalism professor Mark Popovich said. It's a practice known as "checkbook journalism."

"The problem's compounded if the people they were paying were deputized," Popovich said.

The Darke County Sheriff's Department had deputized the three people from Perverted Justice who were the ones to impersonate minors on the Internet. It was done to make sure there weren't any questions about the validity of the subsequent arrests.

Well, it turns out this story has been around for a while, without the "ethics twist". Here is an earlier Pal-Item story, from March 28, reporting that: "Seventeen men came to Greenville last weekend thinking they were going to have sexual encounters with juveniles. All 17 are now under arrest and face felony charges for attempted unlawful sexual contact with a minor." All 17 are named in a side-bar.

Here is the Sunday Washington Post story mentioned in the Pal-Item story. Some quotes:

"Dateline" and Perverted Justice have staged stings in Fairfax County, Long Island, N.Y., and Riverside, Calif. During the Fairfax operation last summer, the men lured to the house included a rabbi who worked in Potomac, a schoolteacher from Prince George's County and a physician from the Eastern Shore.

In each of those segments, Perverted Justice received no compensation from NBC, nor were any of the group's members deputized.

But NBC's relationship with the group changed before "Dateline" began taping an installment of the series last month in rural Darke County, Ohio. After the first three "Dateline" stings each drew more than 8 million viewers, Perverted Justice hired an agent to negotiate with the network.

NBC sources said Perverted Justice received compensation in the low six figures for its role in the Ohio sting. The group's founder, Xavier Von Erck, did not dispute that description but declined to provide specifics.

To meet local statutes involving evidence-gathering, three Perverted Justice members who engaged in Internet chats with alleged pedophiles were deputized by Darke County's sheriff, said Richard M. Howell, the county's prosecuting attorney. Technically, deputizing the volunteers made them law enforcement officers during the sting, Howell said.

Mainstream news organizations typically do not pay sources for their cooperation because such payments might unduly influence the source's actions or information. Dateline's tactics on other stories have been questioned recently. On Friday, NASCAR officials accused the news magazine program of trying to "manufacture the news" by bringing a group of Muslim men to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia to see how they would be treated by NASCAR fans.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 12, 2006 08:03 AM
Posted to General Law Related