Friday, January 29, 2010

The Use and Misuse of 911 Recordings

By Angela Dove


“Completely inappropriate”

“Immoral and tasteless”

This is just a sampling of more than 150 reader responses to the article, “Brittany Murphy’s Mom’s hysterical call to 911” on On January 8, the entertainment magazine published audio of Sharon Murphy’s call to an emergency operator as her daughter, actress Brittany Murphy, lay dying in the actress’s California home. The move prompted immediate backlash from readers who vowed to boycott the magazine and told online editors, “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” None of the comments criticized the accompanying article, which included heartbreaking quotes from the call; instead, online users were united in their belief that encouraging the public to listen to a mother live through the worst moment of her life is despicable. Within 48 hours, the magazine removed the audio file.

While I agree that it is unpardonable to parade a family’s pain under the banner of entertainment, I am nonetheless intrigued by the power of such recordings. With—and only with—the family’s permission, a 911 recording can be an effective tool, particularly during the investigation of an unsolved crime.

It was for my family.

When my stepmother, Debi, was murdered in 1988, police were unable to make an arrest. Debi’s mother began a relentless media in hopes of bringing forward an informant. During the ensuing nine years her efforts landed Debi’s case on numerous true crime shows, most of which I avoided watching. There was one time, however, when I accidentally caught part of a show (I won’t mention any names) and watched in morbid fascination as several detectives offered a condensed version of the case: Debi was murdered in our house with a knife from our kitchen, my father found her the next morning, my baby sister slept through the attack just a few feet away, and there was no sign of forced entry.

By the time this show aired, Debi’s murder had been unsolved for more than a year, and I had moved across country in part to get away from the celebrity that comes to survivors of unsolved crime—relentless media aftershocks that can bring new devastation to lives already in ruin. What I was not at all prepared for was the tape of my dad’s frantic call to 911. The crime show played the call, and the panic and desolation in my father’s voice winded me like a punch to the stomach. I stumbled to the TV set and turned it off, sobbing in my now-silent living room.

At the time, I felt my family had been revictimized by the show. What I did not realize, however, was that the same recording that sickened me had actually convinced others that my father was not Debi’s killer.

Because of my naivety (I was only a teenager when Debi died), or perhaps because of my grief, I had somehow missed the fact that many area residents, and even some members of law enforcement, suspected my father had murdered his wife. Sure, the spouse or boyfriend is always questioned first, but even a year after Debi’s death there were those who doubted my father’s innocence. But anyone who knew my father beyond mere acquaintance would have been hard pressed to listen to that call and believe him anything other than innocent. Perhaps, if it had been released sooner, my father would not have suffered such ostracism and hostility during his own grieving process.

Aside from testifying to the state of mind of those on scene, 911 calls strike a chord even with strangers. (Over 150 comments to People’s online editors—and those were only the ones who bothered to log into the site long enough to tell them off!) Who knows if one of those listening strangers may hold the key to solving a crime?

When Debi’s mother, Jacque MacDonald, waged a war for justice in front of the cameras, it was only because she believed that someone, somewhere, knew who had killed her daughter. “There was one person who knew,” Jacque says, “and my job was to get them to come forward.” Were they afraid? Or did they think their one little piece of information wasn’t important? Jacque knew she had to break down their reticence or apathy. So she and my father laid their pain out there to the public. Eventually, Jacque’s “one person who knows” came forward with the information we needed.

Today Debi’s murderer is in jail, and Jacque fights for justice on behalf of other victims and survivors through her radio and television talk show, “The Victim’s Voice.” Based in central California, Jacque continues to counsel survivors of unsolved crimes to use anything they have at their disposal—including 911 recordings—in their search for justice.

“Other people understand panic and fear and loss,” Jacque explains. “Maybe they’ve lost a loved one or a friend. So that tape makes a connection.” If the family is able to connect to their ‘one person who knows,’ as Jacque did, then a shared understanding of loss may convince the informant to come forward.

Again, I want to be perfectly clear that I do not support the hawking of other people’s tragedies. Whether it is a mother’s 911 call or photos of disaster victims, I abhor the way some news and/or entertainment venues package and sell the heartbreak of others. But in the wake of an unsolved crime, it may be that sharing a vulnerability with the public can lead to a strong personal victory.


Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist, speaker, and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin/Berkley, 2009). She welcomes feedback at

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