Chris Hansen, investigative reporter from the series “To Catch a Predator” was accompanied by a camera crew and SWAT team on the afternoon of November 5, to the house of a Texas prosecutor, (yes…I said prosecutor), Louis William Conradt, Jr.
The program, aired on NBC, worked with local police departments along with an online watchdog group – Perverted Justice – to lure suspected pedophiles to so-called sting houses – using as bait “decoys” – adults posing as teenage boys.
According to published articles – this one quoted from law.com: Conradt had served for five terms as a district attorney in Kaufman County, Texas, and was an assistant prosecutor in Rockwell County, Texas, when he allegedly contacted a decoy who had been posing online as a 13-year-old boy.
Using this information, police obtained search and arrest warrants for Conradt. Police and “Dateline” cast and crew, including NBC News correspondent Chris Hansen, went to his home in the town of Terrell, Texas, on the afternoon of Nov. 5.
Members of the SWAT team went into the house through a back door and saw Conradt step into a room and say, “I’m not going to hurt anyone.” He then shot himself with a handgun.
A police officer then reported the shooting on camera to Hansen and allegedly said to a “Dateline” producer, “That’ll make good TV.”
So when is it good TV vs. a violation of what is moral and ethical? That is a question apparently to be settled by the courts. Now, Condradt’s sister is suing NBC in the Southern District of New York for $100 million, claiming, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress. In rejecting NBC’s 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, Judge Denny Chin wrote that if the allegations are proved true, a jury could find that “NBC crossed the line from responsible journalism to irresponsible and reckless intrusion into law enforcement.”
According to Bruce Baron, lawyer representing the Conradt family, this “sends a strong message to law enforcement throughout this country: Never subcontract your uniform, badge and the oath you take.”
A spokeswoman for NBC, however, said “the evidence will ultimately show that ‘Dateline’ acted responsibly and lawfully.”
“We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously,” said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Tartikoff. “The judge’s ruling was based solely on the plaintiff’s version of the facts. For purposes of this motion only, the judge was required, under the law, to accept the plaintiff’s allegations as true.”
Again, according to law.com: In its motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, NBC argued that it owed no duty to protect Conradt from killing himself and that its alleged conduct was not “extreme and dangerous” so as to meet the standard under Texas law for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Judge Chin said he was dismissing many of Conradt’s claims, but the principal claims survived.
“Rather than merely report on law enforcement’s efforts to combat crime, NBC purportedly instigated and then placed itself squarely in the middle of a police operation, pushing police to engage in tactics that were unnecessary and unwise, solely to generate more dramatic footage for a television show,” Chin said.
As an example, the judge said a jury could find “that there was no legitimate law enforcement need for a heavily armed SWAT team to extract a 56-year-old prosecutor from his home when he was not accused of actual violence and was not believed to have a gun, that this was done solely ‘to sensationalize and enhance the entertainment value’ of the arrest.”
In declining to dismiss the emotional distress claim, the judge held that NBC “created a substantial risk of suicide or other harm, and that it engaged in conduct so outrageous and extreme that no civilized society should tolerate it.”
Ethical Choices? As an ethics speaker, this whole issues raises interesting questions. First, assuming Conradt was a pedophile – does his right to minimize a substantial risk of suicide need to be protected? Again, assuming guilt on Conradt’s part, what protections should have been in place to protect the abused children? Should NBC be allowed to sensationalize the process and arrest – ignoring the possible outcomes (including suicide)? If NBC is found guilty, should the proceeds from any award go to compensate the children and families that Conradt abused or harmed?
Comments are welcome!