Here’s a quiz: Which names do you recognize?
Aja. N’Kiah. Tatianna. Brittany. Caylee.
All five girls, authorities said, were killed by their mothers. Yet it’s likely that, besides their family and friends, not many people remember sisters Aja Fogle, 5, N’Kiah Fogle, 6, Tatianna Jacks, 11, and Brittany Jacks, 16. In 2008, when their decaying bodies were found in their mother’s Southeast Washington rowhouse, their faces weren’t splashed on the covers of magazines, and their deaths weren’t the subject of debate on national news programs.
The contrast to the story of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, who also died in 2008, and whose face has graced numerous magazine pages and prime-time television specials, could not be more stark.
Banita Jacks, now 36, the mother of the four girls found dead in Washington, was convicted of her daughters’ murders and sentenced to 120 years in prison. Caylee’s killer has not been convicted, though prosecutors charged her mother, Casey Anthony, 25, with her daughter’s slaying. A Florida jury acquitted her of the murder charge this past week, and she will spend a handful of additional days in prison for lying to the police.
Prior to Jacks’s conviction, she was known by few outside Washington. A Google search revealed about 26,000 hits for stories mentioning Jacks, vs. more than 73 million hits, and growing, for Anthony.
How is it that the tragic death of one little girl could attract so much more attention than the tragic deaths of four sisters?
The easy answer is that the disparity in coverage is about race and class. Media critics argue that if Caylee had been black, her disappearance and death would never have received as much attention. There were indeed sharp contrasts: Caylee, white, from a middle-income home in suburban Orlando, in the shadow of Disney World; the Jacks sisters, black, from a lower-income Southeast Washington neighborhood besieged by drugs and crime, just blocks from the Capitol.
Those differences may have played a part, but there were other reasons that Caylee became a household name and Aja and her sisters did not. The way the Anthony case unfolded in the courts — and especially the way the state of Florida handled the prosecution — has a lot to do with the outcry now in the court of public opinion.
By the time Caylee’s remains were discovered in December 2008, the news media were already fascinated with the story. Caylee’s grandparents, not her mother, had reported her missing a month after she was last seen with Casey Anthony, and more than 2,000 volunteers had descended on the family’s neighborhood in the summer and fall of that year to look for the little girl. Images of volunteers searching the woods for clues about a missing child attract viewers, and the more viewers who tune in, the more media outlets want in on the story. Caylee’s grandparents spoke often on national television about their missing granddaughter. Web sites, such as HelpFindCaylee.com, were created, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children got involved.
Florida laws are different from those in most other states and the District of Columbia, allowing evidence gathered by prosecutors to be released to the public almost immediately. That meant everyone could see photos of Casey Anthony partying in the days after her daughter disappeared; the images weren’t sealed until trial. And Florida courts, unlike those in D.C., allow news cameras inside, so the month-long trial played out on live television.
The Jacks case was dramatically different. Although family members had not seen the girls in about a year, including over the holidays, they never reported them missing or appealed to the media for help. After the judge announced his verdict, the attorneys gave news conferences outside the courthouse for local media, but afternoon television programs weren’t interrupted, and no national network anchors were camped out with experts ready to discuss the case in prime time.
Sadly, this type of case — a parent accused of killing a child — is not so unusual in the District or elsewhere. There are even special divisions in the D.C. police department and dedicated prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who deal with them. In one recent case, Carlese Hall, 31, of Southeast Washingtonwas sentenced in April for the 2008 first-degree murder of her 7-year-old daughter, Amari. Prosecutors said that Hall, while high on PCP, fatally stabbed her daughter in her chest and then set their house on fire after the two struggled over the mother combing her daughter’s hair. In D.C. Superior Court, there are two pending murder cases involving fathers accused of fatally beating their infant sons.
One similarity does emerge in the Jacks and Anthony trials: the message from child advocacy workers that family members need to be vigilant in keeping tabs on young children in the homes of their loved ones. No one thinks a family member would harm his or her own child, but many factors, possibly unknown or kept secret — such as stress, drug use, mental illness or excessive alcohol use — could put a child at risk.
No one in the Jacks or Anthony families apparently noticed or reported the children missing immediately after losing contact with them. Caylee had not been seen or heard from for about a month before she was reported missing. The bodies of the Jacks sisters were in their mother’s rowhouse for about seven months before they were discovered by federal marshals serving eviction papers.
After the Jacks case, hotlines at the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency were flooded with phone calls from residents who were concerned about children in the homes of families or neighbors.
Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for the embattled agency, said family members are the first line of defense in the safety of a young child. It’s family members, Good says, who will notice a drastic change in a parent’s behavior that should spark concern.
After the Jacks case emerged, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty fired sixworkers from D.C. Child and Family Services. The workers allegedly failed to respond to a social worker’s concerns months before the girls’ bodies were discovered. Since then, the agency has had two directors leave because of criticism and flaws within the agency.
The Anthony trial may lead to changes in the way Orlando or the state of Florida handles children’s welfare issues. Online, people are petitioning to create a law that would make it a felony for parents or caregivers to not report the death of a child, accidental or otherwise, to authorities within one hour. It also would make it a felony for guardians to not notify law enforcement of the disappearance of a child within 24 hours. The proposed legislation is called “Caylee’s Law.”
So many people watched the story of Caylee Anthony unfold, and many feel dissatisfied with the verdict. They say they want justice for Caylee. But, crime victim advocates say, they can be more effective by carefully observing children in their own communities, trying to ensure that they are safe, so television camera crews won’t have to roll up to a courthouse again anytime soon to cover the death of another child.
Keith L. Alexander covers the D.C. Superior Court for The Washington Post.