In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 13-year-old Lionel Tate has been found guilty of the grisly killing of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick. Lionel, who caused injuries to Tiffany that a prosecution witness claimed were "consistent with [the effects of] falling from a three-story building," was a pro-wrestling buff. His attorney had put forward a "wrestling defense," arguing Lionel was innocent because he had been adversely influenced by, and had emulated, the brutal antics he regularly watched his TV wrestling heroes perform. "Like Batman and Superman," the attorney said, "they were his heroes. He loved to play."
The court rejected that defense. The 13-year-old was convicted of first-degree murder and given life without parole. His only hope is an extraordinary intervention by the governor of the state to commute the sentence.
You can just hear the entertainment industry celebrating. (ITAL) We told you we are not to blame! We told you we don't influence children's behavior! (ITAL)
Yet all around us there is evidence that the opposite is the case. It's no longer the bizarre, isolated report here and there. Children committing brutalities to others -- or themselves -- while influenced by various forms of entertainment media is becoming a regular feature in the news. Consider the events in the past two weeks alone:
-- The Associated Press reports that in New Philadelphia, Ohio, a 16-year-old boy, imitating a popular pro-wrestling stunt, plunged 18 feet from the roof of his house onto a flaming card table. He caught on fire and ended up with burns over 20 percent of his body. The boy's stepfather, who allegedly was right there and witnessed the incident, was arrested and has been charged with child endangerment.
-- According to another AP dispatch, a 13-year-old Torrington, Conn., boy, aided by a friend, "poured gasoline on his feet and legs and lit him[self] on fire while imitating a stunt on MTV's ... 'Jackass.'" On the "Jackass" episode, which the boys had seen earlier that night, the show's star, Johnny Knoxville, "donned a fire-resistant suit hung with steaks [and] lay across a makeshift barbecue while his castmates shot lighter fluid onto the grill." At last report, the boy was in critical condition, suffering from second- and third-degree burns. In the wake of this tragedy, MTV issued a prepared statement saying merely that the "Jackass" audience is warned not to try such stunts and wishing the boy a "full and speedy recovery." MTV has further stated it does not intend to tone down its act.
--The British paper the Guardian reported that the family of a teenage girl murdered in California in 1995 is suing the heavy-metal act Slayer and its record company, Sony-affiliated American Recordings. The family believes the band's music helped inspire three teenage boys to commit the crime.
The boys choked and stabbed to death 15-year-old Elyse Pahler. They later returned to the scene and had sex with her corpse. According to the Guardian, one of them said that "the three had often stayed up all night listening to Slayer and taking drugs. He said [the music] 'started to influence the way I looked at things.'" Each boy is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence after pleading guilty to the murder.
Slayer's albums have such titles as "Hell Awaits" and "South of Heaven." The group's most recent LP, "Diabolus in Musica," contains a song that goes, in part, "Absolute reign a malevolent mind/Conceptions so vile in this bottomless soul/Shooting up hate, nothing beats the rush."
As for the lawsuit, the Guardian says, "Both the band and the record company argue that they are protected under the First Amendment."
-- An article in the Daily Mail of London concerned an inquest into the suicide of 17-year-old David Hurcombe last September. The suicide note he left behind contained the lyrics of the rapster Eminem's track "Rock Bottom."
With characteristically British understatement, the coroner who handled the boy's case called the words to that song "rather depressing." They include, "Right now I feel like [I] just hit the rock bottom/ ... I'm screaming like those two cops when Tupac shot 'em/[I'm] holding two [guns], I hope your doors got new locks on 'em." References to violence and death are a mainstay for Mr. Eminem. Hurcombe printed out the lyrics "Cause when we die we know we're all going the same way. It's cool to be a player, but it sucks to be a fan," then added his own words: "Anyway, got to go, miss my train. See y'all in hell."
Shortly thereafter Hurcombe threw himself in front of a train. His body -- what was left of it -- was identified through dental records.
Eminem sees his music in a different light, of course. "Anybody with a sense of humor," he has said, "is going to put on my album and laugh from beginning to end." On Feb 21 millions of children will watch Eminem on national television. CBS is hosting the Grammys, and Eminem has been nominated for four awards.