Aisenbergs win hearts, not minds
By MARY JO MELONE
©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
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
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
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