Missing Sabrina

Aisenbergs win hearts, not minds


©St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 1998

In the first days after the disappearance of the baby we all know now simply as Sabrina, her distraught parents took a clubbing from reporters.

The offense then was not talking to us.

The silence of Marlene and Steve Aisenberg was presumed to suggest guilt. Worse yet, the silence was inconvenient to reporters, who needed something new every day. The sausage machine that is daily journalism had to be fed.

Now it's been fed. You could even say we reporters have stuffed ourselves on the Aisenbergs. Through arrangements made by their lawyer, Barry Cohen, they have finally given interviews to the Times, the Tampa Tribune, local TV, even the networks in New York, including the NBC trifecta of Today, Dateline and MSNBC.

As a result, what follows will sound ungrateful to anybody who subscribes to the view that all reporters think alike. It will also sound unsympathetic toward the Aisenbergs, caught in the most terrible circumstances a parent's imagination might concoct.

But it's my sympathy that's being strained by the media blitz. The Aisenbergs have reached my heart, but not my head.

By appearing on TV, they seem to want two things at once -- not just to drum up new leads in this very odd case, but to help themselves.

A courtroom is one place, with one set of rules, with the one against self-incrimination at the center: The law doesn't require the Aisenbergs to be the least bit cooperative with detectives.

The court of public opinion is another place, with another set of rules, of common sense. Common sense says that parents desperate to find their child would cooperate fully with the police.

Defense lawyers have an explanation for the Aisenbergs' refusal to cooperate further. John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor and now a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, said the couple would only lose by testifying further.

Investigators have already found inconsistencies in the couple's statements. The inconsistencies may be benign or not, but without further evidence they're the basic building blocks of the case. A prosecutor probably could have a "field day" with the couple's contradictory remarks, Fitzgibbons said.

That's one legal nicety, which suggests Cohen will never let his clients cooperate.

Here's another. The deal Cohen is offering the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is bogus.

He has said he'll permit detectives to further interview the couple only if the police show him what they have, including the notes of the interviews the Aisenbergs gave before he stepped in.

Every defense lawyer makes requests like this. Police give in, Fitzgibbons said, about as often "as snow (falls) in Tampa."

Cohen is asking for what he knows he can't get on the belief that his apparently reasonable request will score points with a dumb public that doesn't know how investigations work.

This is a man who's thinking ahead: Members of that dumb public may one day have to sit as jurors and decide the Aisenbergs' fate in a trial. How helpful it would be for the jurors to remember them vaguely, but kindly, as that nice couple on TV.

Cohen could declare the Aisenbergs won't cooperate until snow falls on Franklin Street. That would look very bad, so we've been treated instead to a sympathy show.

Regrettably from the defense's point of view, and more important, Sabrina's, the show can't go on much longer. If Sabrina isn't found soon, reporters will move on to the next calamity.

That's the nature of the sausage machine. It needs to be fed daily.

What will happen when the camera lights go dark, when the reporters stop calling? Will the Aisenbergs still be following their lawyer's advice, or will they be back at the sheriff's door, clamoring for help?

©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.