The New Roughriders (2/98)

Last summer a battalion of US reporters laid siege to the tiny island nation of St. Vincent, seeking to rescue an imprisoned American couple from the clutches of what they perceived to be a "Banana Republic" with no respect for due process or the American way. Many of the reporters — still in their 20s — were armed with the bulletproof zeal of their own moral certitude. They may not remember Teddy Roosevelt, but in their xenophobic euphoria they found a San Juan Hill to assault, one rich with the grapeshot of sound bites and innuendo.

The couple, Jim and Penny Fletcher, already had an appalling reputation as rich, "ugly Americans." After being kicked out of some of the best joints in their home town of Huntington, West Virginia, the came to the caribbean on Jim’s father’s yacht, The Carefree. Booze and drug-induced sexual high jinks followed them from port to port, ending in the Grenadines with the mysterious murder of their black, water taxi driver.

The local police decided to arrest them, based on circumstantial evidence and instinct, plus the fact that they were outbound to open sea the morning after the murder. A Magistrate’s Court remanded them to prison to await trial. On Friday, August 8, they were both acquitted. In the meantime, however,the US media set out to canonize them as innocent victims of a corrupt island government, left to languish in a medieval prison. They were even crowned "Prisoners in Paradise."

No lesser star than Nightline’s Ted Koppel spoke on their behalf, invoking public and official outrage. The dead water taxi driver was characterized as a small-time drug dealer of little worth. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a letter, bringing the full force of the US government to bear. And President Clinton himself sought assurances from St. Vincent’s Prime Minister, Sir James Mitchell, that the Fletchers would get a fair trial.

But the media wasn’t content to let justice take its course. Blatant misrepresentations were made about official corruption, bribes, and other nefarious activities. One US attorney asserted in the media that St. Vincent was a den of systemic corruption reaching to the highest levels. A Puerto Rican attorney for the Fletchers claimed he’d attempted to bribe an unnamed official with $100,000 to obtain their release, only to be rebuffed because another bribe had surfaced. Unbridled by normal ethical and professional standards, the lawyers joined the cavalry charge.

In pursuit of even more "justice," CNN’s Burden of Proof featured only Fletcher family and friends the night before the trial started. Not a single dissenting voice, for St. Vincent or the murder victim, was allowed into that prime time trial. The next day, after three months of protests about pre-trial publicity, defense attorneys proclaimed that they now believed Jim and Penny could get a fair trial after all.

Burden of Proof eventually agreed to allow Prime Minister Mitchell equal time to "level the playing field." But he was ambushed on the air. The hosts allowed Fletcher supporters to dominate the show with half-truths and high invective, and gave the PM little opportunity to comment on the substantive issues. It was an embarrassing moment for Sir James and US journalism.

Meanwhile. back in court. the judge systematically rejected most of the prosecution’s case. Of course, that was his prerogative, but one couldn’t help but feel that the scales of justice was still off balance. Then, two juror revealed that they’d received life-threatening, anonymous calls designed to ensure the Fletcher’s acquittal. The trial continued anyway.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about coverage was its total failure to focus on the real victim. The Fletchers became the victims, and poor "Jolly" Joseph was just an incidental participant in the drama of his life and death. One of nine children, Jerome "Jolly" Joseph was actually a 30-year old entrepreneur with a successful water taxi service. He was widely admired in his tight-knit community as a hard working, non-drinking, frugal man with a vision and a savings account. He was the first up and the last to bed when the visiting yachting fraternity was in full sway on beautiful Admiralty Bay.

But alas, like Achilles, he did have a heel — his accommodation of white, female visitors looking for a dark remembrance of their stay in paradise. He was by no means profligate, but did provide additional hospitality when so inclined — as did many of his peers. Penelia Fletcher was clearly one of the customers he obliged. In fact, she was widely known for her sexual appetites, and the apparent indifference of her husband was cause for local wonder. Yet, the media chose to champion their plight, and to ignore, if not vilify, the life of a simple, hard-working black man.

During the trial, it was reported in St. Lucia, a neighboring island nation, that the Fletchers had agreed to pay a local "hit man" $10,000 to have a water taxi driver killed. Widely disseminated in the Caribbean, this story was never recognized as relevant. A more discreet revelation came from Penny’s second cousin, who was quoted on the Internet as having heard Penny confess that she had indeed killed Joseph. Not a word reached the court.

But the most outrageous omission was the judge’s refusal to admit eyewitness testimony from men who’d heard Penny boast that she was going to "kill a nigger" because he’d sodomized her without using vaseline. Two days later "Jolly" Joseph was dead. The Fletchers were the last people with whom he was seen.

As information consumers, our expectations have diminished under a web of hyperbole and conceit. We only get the executive summary of someone’s life and death. And if it doesn’t fit into ninety seconds, it isn’t worth the effort. Maybe we’ll watch it on A&E five years from now — if we’re not too busy or bored.

"When I survey the horizon of this recent tragedy," said Prime Minister Mitchell after the trial, "what I most purely see is a poor, black woman, like Rachael, looking inconsolably out to sea, with the tears that only a mother can understand when she’s lost a son. Who is really the victim here? And where is the justice beyond the horizon?"

Dick Reed works for West Indies Communications Group Ltd., which represents the Government of St. Vincent.