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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Suspicious Celebrity Death Cases: The Entertainment Value of Murder

     In California, by law, any time a "celebrity" dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the body must undergo an autopsy. This is because of the media, and the disturbing fact that in America, celebrities are more important than the rest of us. (There are thousands of legitimately suspicious deaths in this country every year that do not receive autopsies because of the shortage of forensic pathologists.) In Hollywood, to die suddenly without an autopsy is a posthumous insult.

     It's easy to understand why Natalie Wood's sudden and unexpected death in 1981 made headlines. She was a beautiful and famous Hollywood actress, and her husband, a potential suspect in the case, was also a star. This celebrity death had all the makings of an O.J.-lke media spectacle. But, when "Coroner to the Stars" Dr. Thomas Noguchi ruled the death an accidental drowning, he killed the story. Now, some thirty years later, the Natalie Wood case is back in the news as a potential murder.

     If, in 1981, a housewife from Buffalo, New York had fallen off a boat into Lake Erie after arguing with her accountant husband, only a handful of people would have heard about the death in the local media. At best this death would have engendered a cursory investigation, then slipped into permanent oblivion.

     The re-opening of the Natalie Wood case is more of a media event that a serious cold case homicide investigation. This is more for our entertainment than it is for the administration of justice.( At this moment, I wonder how many film treatments on the case are making the rounds in Hollywood.)

     On November 18, forty print and TV reporters were gathered outside Los Angeles Sheriff's headquarters in anticipation of Lieutenant John Corina's press conference. Although Corina revealed nothing beyond what was already known about the case, the fact Wood's death was again an open case slapped a patina of legitimacy to the media spectacle. Quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Suzanne Ely, a professor of journalism at New School University, said "It appears that law enforcement is following the media, not the other way around."

     There a tens of thousands of old murder and suspicious death cases that cry out for a second look. The Natalie Wood case is not one of them. This is an entertaining waste of time at the expense of actors Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken. I should look away, but I can't. And I guess this makes me part of the problem.

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