In White Media And Courts, White Suspects Often ‘Troubled’

Apr 18 2012

Henry Wachtel in court April 11 with his lawyer, Lloyd Epstein. He's charged with second-degree murder in his mother's death. Photo by Steven Hirsch

On April 10, 19-year-old Henry Wachtel attacked his mother in their Manhattan apartment; she died from her injuries hours later. Wachtel’s lawyer has told news organizations that his client’s epilepsy medication caused him to attack his 63-year-old mother, Karyn Kay.

In a New York Times Big City piece this morning, Ginia Bellafante writes that screaming by Wachtel in a 911 call for his mother to live “suggests he did what he did by accident.” [our emphasis]

After watching a short film based on “fiction and non-fiction” and that centers on the lives of and stars Wachtel and another teenager, Bellafante also writes: “Mr. Wachtel did not seem to me to be a vicious killer but a troubled boy who did not have the easiest relationship with his mother…” [Again, emphasis ours.]

Ah, the old “troubled”/”insanity” defense. Comedian Paul Mooney delineates its racial double standard with brilliance and devastation (it’s simultaneously tragic and hilarious) in his 2002 routine Analyzing White America (video below, link here). Ellen Chun also addresses racial biases related to the insanity defense in the Boston College Third World Law Journal in a review of Denis Woychuk’s book Attorney for the Damned: A Lawyer’s Life with the Criminally Insane.

At the very least, white news organizations typically afford whites who are accused of committing horrific deadly acts the benefit of the doubt (I believe the Constitutional phrase is “innocent until proven guilty.”) Whites suspected of violent crimes are, at the very least, presented objectively in news accounts. Too often, though, in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, news articles and columns such as Bellafante’s attempt to excuse or justify these acts often with subjective and sympathetic language such as “troubled.” Moreover, these biased articles play up the white suspect’s supposedly troubled family life.

Yet, when blacks are accused of committing similarly horrific deadly acts, news accounts often don’t offer the same sympathy or subtle (or not so subtle) justifications and rationalizations. In fact, news accounts often present black criminal suspects with a tone of presumptive guilt, as cold-blooded, ruthless, and inhumane.

Even black suspects defending themselves during a killing are treated with skepticism in news accounts. Take the case of John White, a black Long Island, N.Y., father and husband who in 2006 shot and killed a drunken white teenager who, along with four other white youths, had followed White’s son home, uttering racial slurs and threats along the way.

Yet, news outlets presented White’s insistence that he shot the teenager accidentally while trying to defend his family from a “lynch mob” outside his home as a claim - not fact – yet to be proven. White was arrested, charged with manslaughter, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to prison. Then-Gov. David Paterson later commuted his sentence.

And sometimes a black suspect doesn’t even have to be accused of killing a human to receive disparate treatment from news media, courts, and segments of the public. See: Michael Vick.

In other words, black suspects in white media (the phrase “mainstream media” is an ambiguous, if not misleading, euphemism) and in courtrooms often are portrayed and perceived as inherently violent while violence committed by whites is depicted as being the result of a “troubled” family life and/or emotional/psychiatric/psychological problems.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, writes about the racial double standard as it relates to crime in his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. He also discussed the issue in our article at

We all know that people of all racial constructs commit horrific acts. News media need to practice one fair standard for presenting these acts and the people accused of committing them to their readers, viewers and listeners. Judges and jurors need to exercise the same single fair standard as well.


Comments are off for this post