The news that Sensing Murder was returning filled me with dismay, but not surprise. The mix of psychic tomfoolery, murder mystery and graphic 'recreations' could hardly fail, and by making the programs look like CSI style drama, the producers may have quietened concerns about their shameless recycling of real pain and death and grief as entertainment.
I watched part of the previous series, and wrote a critique (1)
of the episode featuring the murder of Olive Walker. Others have provided very detailed eviserations (2)
of two other episodes from that series.
The new series was preceded by a special episode, titled Sensing Murder: Insight. It promised two things, First, a sceptic would witness the filming of a Sensing Murder case, featuring star Aussie psychic Deb Weber. Second, we would be up-dated on the progress of cases featured in the last series. The programme was astounding.
The most astonishing thing was the identity of the sceptic - what was Nigel Latta doing in this schlocky tabloid absurdity? Latta is a respected criminal psychologist, known for working with some of our most dangerous young killers (3)
and with child abusers. He's a professional, sensible chap, with keen insight. I can't underastand what prompted him to lend crediblity to this balderdash.
His presence was especially odd, given the reservations he expressed about the honesty of the producers, suspecting - as I do - that a lot of footage is left out, and only the occasional correct guess is left in. The producers are also guilty of manipulating and distorting what the psychics say to try to make it credible, as shown in the Olive Walker case (4)
. Why Latta thought he would get a fair showing from people with a vested interest in protecting the program's shaky credibility is unclear.
Offered access to the filming, Latta should have insisted on the right to producing his own commentary, with control over content and context, rather than allowing the producers to pick what they wanted. Perhaps he made a trade off in the hope of being able to do a seperate expose. The producers suggested he wasn't able to account for what he witnessed, and was left with his scepticism severely tested by the end of it. I'd like to hear his side, unmediated by the producers of Sensing Murder.
At one point, he said that he thought Weber was genuine, and though he was clearly meant that he didn't think she was manufacturing a performance, the producers presented this so that it seemed he was endorsing her supposed psychic powers. Similarly, it seemed that many of his comments were cut off. I wondered how many but's or however's were left out. We don't know how long Weber spent communing with the spirit of the dead woman. We don't know how many false leads she followed before getting lucky. She managed to spell out part of the dead woman's name, but this was could have been little more than hangman style guessing, retaining correct guesses and discarding the incorrect.
Perhaps by watching for signaling - concious or unconscious - between Weber and the producers, Latta was looking in the wrong place. Perhaps the truth was simpler. The case Weber was 'investigating' was the murder of Margaret Walker. This had previously been featured on New Zealand television, on 20/20. The son of the dead woman has maintained - in spite of police findings of accidental death - that she was murdered by an unknown party. He has campaigned for the case to be re-opened (5)
. So the case is not obscure and it is reasonable to wonder if Weber may have been familiar with it. This would account for what Latta found most puzzling - Weber's ability to lead them straight to the house where Walker died - though if Weber was communing with the spirit of Walker, why the need to go walk-about at all? (6)
Once Weber was inside the house, I noticed that something interesting happened, or didn't happen. In the hallway where Walker died, after (according to the police) falling down the stairs, Weber walked straight up the stairs to describe how Walker went to the toilet before she met her death. In doing so, she passed right over the spot where Walker's body was found, without a moment's hesitation. It is surprising that the shade of Margaret Walker felt the pressing need to tell us about her bladder, before telling us about how she met her death. Maybe the dead have different priorities from the rest of us. If Weber was familiar with the case, it would also explain how she 'sensed' the death wasn't a murder. Naturally, the producers claimed was dramatic confirmation of the police version, though it confrimed nothing at all. I can stand in a hallway and declare whatever I like. It doesn't make it so.
The remainder of the program reviewed the six cases of the previous series. We were told that the police were investigating new information as a result of the series. They didn't explain - though it was apparent from comments made by a policeman interviewed early on - that this new information had arisen from the boost given to the cases by the programs, not from the 'leads' provided by the psychics. So, at best, you could say Sensing Murder is a tacky sort of crimewatch, encouraging people to come forward with information that might be helpful.
As it is, none of the cases featured in the previous series have been solved. Sensing Murder's producers claim they have managed to identify suspicious individuals, where descriptions or photofits have lead to a name being suggested, but police investigations have not lead to any arrests. Some of the details given by the psychics were clearly wrong - it was suggested the killer of Olive Walker had a distinctive tattoo. Police identified someone they already had in custody, based on the photofit composed by Weber. But no confirmation that he had the tattoo. Surely, with the person incarcerated, it would be fairly easy to check? So presumably, no tattoo.
The bottom line is that Sensing Murder has failed to provide any information that has lead to arrests. The six cases still remain unsolved. The psychics failed. The series, a nasty, tacky, exploitative piece of tabloid junk, should be shunned as an insult to the memory of the murdered people, and because of the insult it offers to their grieving kin, seeking comfort in the falsehoods and lies peddled by the program-makers and the so-called 'psychics.'
1 - As described previously on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2007/02/sensing-murder.html
2 - A general over-view otf the series, highlighting its flaws, and then two detailed examinations of the episodes 'A Bump in the Night' and 'A Fallen Angel' are available here: http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~nogods/murder.html#heading-1a
3 - As described previously on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2007/07/bailey-junior-kurariki-applies-for.html
4 - See note 1, above.
5 - "Mother's Mysterious Death Haunts Son," unattributed One News article, 16th of September, 2005. (http://tvnz.co.nz/view/page/411365/611552). The 20/20 clip is available at the same web address.
6 - Weber hasn't always been so assured. The analysis of 'A Bump in the night' (see note 2) includes a descrption of Weber standing in the street, pointing at houses, one after the other, saying "That one?" until the 'positive statement' is confirmed by the production team, who also helpfully point the camera at the house before she has identified it. The other psychic on the case, Kelvin Cruikshank, was even less successful, eventually having to be told which house was the right one. Doh!