The Daily

What is a Jury Trial (No. 4)?

George Mastin 1840’s art of Bill Freeman’s ‘hanging’ from Great Crimes and Trials.

When George Mastin rolled into town with his “Unparalleled Exhibition of Oil Paintings”, it was a sensational event by late 19th Century standards – enough to bring out the whole community. Broadsides on barn doors and tavern walls announced the happening, including historical and religious lectures. The Erin Twin Brothers would be there to clog dance. When the long wooden boxes containing the paintings arrived, nighttime would bring the lighting of twenty candles and the unveiling – while Mastin himself fiddled and danced in the flickering light.

It is said that when George Mastin lectured before the four panels depicting scenes from the Van Nest Murder Trial, “it all seemed very real and moving.”[1]

John G. Van Nest had been Mastin’s neighbor in Auburn, New York. In March of 1846, Van Nest was brutally murdered at home in a bloodbath along with his wife, baby son and mother-in-law. The perpetrator – the ‘crazy-eyed’ black man, Bill Freeman. “Crazy Bill” he’d been called, described as always having a ‘down look’.

The spectacle’s highlight was panel four, depicting Crazy Bill swinging from the end of a rope as a group of seemingly horrified citizenry gasps.

Panel four followed, of course, the dark and sinister depiction of the bloody stabbings and the murder scene’s aftermath. Mastin’s performances were legendary as he took his entertainments from town to town, growing a fantastical and gruesome reputation.

Here’s the reality though. Crazy Bill did not die at the end of a rope. He died in his jail cell of natural causes, exonerated after a sham trial and awaiting a retrial. Heavily chained in irons, he languished while doctors struggled to make sense of his bizarre affect and behavior. An autopsy following his death showed significant brain damage – a diseased temporal bone and broken eardrum[2] .

This anecdotal piece of fictional performance art brings us to Nancy Grace. As a television personality and entertainer, George Mastin had nothing on Nancy Grace. While she often touts her career as a prosecutor, she rarely mentions that her time in the D.A.’s office was less than ten years and during that time she was reprimanded by the Supreme Court of Georgia for improperly withholding evidence. Grace often claims to be motivated by a fiance’s murder under circumstances that she matches to her extreme victims’ advocacy programming (which it doesn’t – the crime was not random, the perpetrator immediately confessed and justice was swift). Shackled to her brand like Crazy Bill in his cell, she has seemingly never met an accused person she was not ready to take down herself. The poisonous hysteria she sells is obscene to and distorts the definition and expectations of justice.

When Nancy Grace and her celebrity bus show up outside your courthouse, you know the Circus is in town. But, like George Mastin, a Nancy Grace performance has nothing to do with the truth. It exists in spite of the truth. I will never forget the daily spectacle that went on for months during Orlando’s Casey Anthony (acquitted in the death of her daughter Caylee) trial. It is possible (although ultimately unknowable) that Grace’s lynch mob programming contributed to the outcome opposite of what she intended by trying to impose her prejudgment so publicly upon the process. It wouldn’t be the first or last time a carnival barker got it wrong.[3][4][5]

[1] Crazy Bill Had a Down Look (1840 Van Nest Murders (NY)), James Taylor Dunn and Louise C. Jones, Stories of Great Crimes and Trials.

[2] According to Dr. Bingham, the examiner, “I have very rarely found so extensive disease of the brain in those who have died after long continued insanity as we found in this instance …”

[3] In September 2006, 22-year-old Melinda Duckett committed suicide following an interview conducted by Grace concerning the disappearance of Duckett’s 2-year-old son Trenton. During the interview, Grace repeatedly harrassed and accused Duckett of murder. The next day, before the airing of the show, Duckett shot herself. There is no evidence that she killed her daughter.

[4] During one of her newscasts, Grace interviewed Charles Bothuell IV, informing him that his son was found dead, to the surprise of Bothuell IV, in his basement by members of law enforcement.

[5] On November 22, 2011, Toni Annette Medrano accidentally killed her 3-week-old son, Adrian Alexander Medrano, while she was sleeping on the couch with him. According to the criminal complaint, Medrano told police she had consumed almost an entire fifth of vodka the night before her son died and fell asleep with him on a couch. The following morning, she woke up and found her infant son unresponsive and cold to the touch. While Grace was covering the case, she infamously dubbed Medrano “Vodka Mom”. During one of her shows, Grace brought a bottle of vodka onto her set and poured shots to demonstrate how much Medrano had drunk the night of her son’s death.[40] In June 2012, Medrano was charged with two counts of second-degree manslaughter. If convicted on both counts, Medrano would have faced a maximum of ten years in prison.[41]

“The baby is dead because of vodka mommy,” Grace said during her June 11 show on HLN. “I don’t care if she was driving a car, holding a pistol or holding a fifth of vodka. [It] doesn’t matter to me. The baby is dead at the hands of the mommy.” During the show, Grace said the charges filed against Medrano weren’t harsh enough. “I don’t see how this whole thing was an accident and I want murder charges,” Grace said.[42]

On July 2, Medrano doused herself in flammable liquid and set herself on fire.[41] She died of her injuries on July 7. After her death, Medrano’s husband and the father of her son said he felt the segment Grace did was cruel and added “The things people said were horrible. It shows that cyberbullying happens to adults, too.”[43] Following Melinda Duckett’s suicide, this is the second suicide to which Grace has been linked.[44] On January 4, 2012, a lawsuit against CNN brought by Medrano’s family was settled, “I can tell you the case was settled in principle two weeks ago,” said personal injury attorney Michael Padden. A lawsuit was never formally served but “we resolved the case just by negotiation,” he said.[45[5]]