Repeat Offenders

America’s Most Wanted and the weird practice of crime re-enactments.

John Walsh, from America’s Most Wanted

America’s Most Wanted is no longer wanted, Fox announced last week. After nearly 25 years, the show will cease weekly broadcasts and will air only a few times a year. Although the program has led to the capture of 1,149 suspects since 1988, it will perhaps be best remembered for its dramatic re-enactments of crimes. One media professor told the New York Times that the show “is an example of the reality genre in its initial stages.”

But America’s Most Wanted did not pioneer the technique. When the show came along in 1988, dramatic re-enactments had long been part of the legal and media toolbox. Anytime a new medium has risen, crime stories have helped it gain a wider audience. Re-enactments have also played a key role in courtrooms, as prosecutors and defense attorneys vie to tell the more convincing story. Even police often rely on re-enactments, both to verify confessions and to shame suspects in public. Indeed, the re-enactment has become as much a part of the ritual of crime-solving as the magnifying glass—albeit more controversial.

In 1936, New York City police accused John Fiorenza of raping and strangling Nancy Titterton, a novelist and the wife of NBC radio executive Lewis Titterton. Once Fiorenza confessed, police brought him back to the scene of the crime, where Fiorenza re-enacted the whole thing. “Fiorenza wasn’t the most articulate guy in the world,” says Harold Schechter, a professor of literature at Queens College of the City University of New York, who is writing a book about the case. But he could show what he did, and the performance helped police confirm Fiorenza’s confession.

In some Asian countries, including South Korea and Japan, police treat re-enactments like perp walks. Criminals are forced to re-enact their crimes for the cops, who invite the media for maximum humiliation. “It’s usually reserved for serious things like bank robbery or a murder,” says Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. In 2010, a South Korean man convicted of raping an 8-year-old girl re-enacted the crime in a Seoul alleyway while dozens of journalists watched and onlookers shouted insults. (Japanese police invite the press less often than they used to, according to Adelstein.)

Re-enactments are also an important part of the criminal litigation process. In a 1841 murder case, lawyers for the defendant, John Colt, staged an elaborate re-enactment of the crime. Colt stood accused of killing a creditor with a shingle hammer; Colt called it self-defense. By staging the crime, Colt’s lawyers showed how his story was consistent with other forensic evidence, such as the angle and depth of the hammer wounds on the victim’s skull.

In the last 20 years, animation has replaced physical re-enactments in the courtroom. During the O.J. Simpson trial, the prosecution commissioned a detailed 3-D recreation of the murder. But animators have to be careful not to include extraneous details, like blood and guts, that could be considered prejudicial. Gory details are allowed only to the extent they’re relevant to the case—for example, if the location where the victim’s brains spattered contradicts the defendant’s story.

Some lawyers consider reenactments prejudicial no matter what. Say a jury first watches the prosecution’s fancy 3-D animation of the alleged crime, then hears the defense’s verbal account. “What’s gonna stick in their mind is the snazzy video recreation,” says Mark Godsey, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati and a former federal prosecutor in New York. That said, courts have generally ruled against attempts to suppress digital re-enactments because the other side can’t afford their own. “You’re entitled to fair defense,” says Godsey. “Not the best defense.”

Media re-enactments have been around almost as long as media itself. Victorian-era papers like the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Police News featured graphic engravings of all the latest atrocities. Wax museums staged graphic murder scenes. Before the pirate Albert Hicks was hanged, for example, P.T. Barnum gave Hicks two boxes of cigars in exchange for his clothes, which Barnum later draped over a wax statue of Hicks. When “moving pictures” came along, early newsreels included crime re-enactments. By the time America’s Most Wanted went on-air, ominous slow-motion crime recreations were already a cliché. Other mystery shows have now outpaced it, with flashy graphics and 3-D animation sequences.

While most directors use crime re-enactments to show “what happened,” others have done the opposite, using re-enactments to blur the line between truth and fiction and to undermine the whole notion of a definitive account. In 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris famously re-created different accounts of the shooting of a Dallas police officer, altering details accordingly. (One reporter, missing the point entirely, asked Morris how he happened to be there with his camera when the crime occurred.)

America’s Most Wanted is unique in that it combined the entertainment and legal value of re-enactments. Its dramatic recreations may have exploited the audience’s emotions, but with the goal of catching the perpetrator. (Good ratings didn’t hurt, either.) “I don’t look at it as a TV show,” John Walsh, its creator, once said. “I look at it as if it were a job as important as addressing the legislatures.” Police and the FBI cooperated in creating the re-enactments, which produced results. “It’s a remarkable record,” President Obama said of the show’s role in apprehending more than 1,000 suspects. In that sense, at least, America’s Most Wanted was revolutionary.