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Monday, January 19, 2004  

Analysis: The Jonathan Luna case

The investigation of Maryland prosecutor Jonathan Luna's murder, which some people had blamed on a rapper and his associate, has stalled. Current evidence does not direct attention to the the duo. They are not considered suspects.

Renee Graham at the Life in the Pop Lane has the back story.

Hip-hop didn't kill Jonathan Luna.

A federal prosecutor in Baltimore, Luna was found dead Dec. 4. He was stabbed multiple times, and his body was discovered face down in a creek in rural Pennsylvania. An autopsy later revealed that Luna, 38, may have been tortured before he drowned. When Luna's death was reported, attention quickly turned to the lawyer's recent cases, in particular his prosecution of two men accused of trafficking heroin. Yet what the headlines and sound bites blared was that one of the men was an aspiring rapper.

From CNN to CNBC to National Public Radio, there was an implicit nudge-and-wink that if Luna, at the time of his death, was prosecuting someone even marginally connected to rap music, then that person had to be involved with the lawyer's murder. In a Dec. 4 story on NPR's "All Things Considered," correspondent Brian Naylor spent a sizable chunk of his report talking about the men who ran a "violent drug ring in part from a recording studio in Baltimore they called Stash House Records." CNBC's Brian Williams opened his report saying Luna was "in the middle of a major drug case against a rap artist." CNN flashed a smiling photo of Luna, with the words "was prosecuting a rap artist," as if that caption was supposed to connect the dots and explain everything.

In an example of the media's dunderheaded tendency to sanctify the victim first and ask pertinent questions later (if at all), few seemed willing to consider that Luna's caseload may have had nothing to do with his death. Those two men Luna had been prosecuting -- Luna was reported missing after he had failed to appear in court for their trial -- were already in jail when Luna was killed. Furthermore, the men had pleaded guilty to some of the drug charges in exchange for the government dropping the more serious conspiracy charges. Satisfied with the plea agreement, the men had no reason to want Luna dead, their lawyer said.

But associating rap music and hip-hop culture with the brutal death of a dedicated, hard-working prosecutor was just too sexy for the lazy media to ignore. There was little focus on Luna's other cases, which included others facing drug charges.

. . .In the weeks since Luna's death, attention has shifted from the prosecutor's caseload to his personal life. Some believe Luna, a married father of two, may have been leading a double life, possibly involving secret sexual assignations. "Nothing has been ruled in or out [as a motive]," FBI special agent Larry Foust told People magazine. "Everything is on the table." Still, there's no longer any talk about Luna's prosecution of a rap artist. (Now, the men are referred to as "heroin dealers.")

The Baltimore Sun has continued probing the mystery.

From its grim beginning in a rural Pennsylvania field five weeks ago, the mystery of who killed Baltimore federal prosecutor Jonathan P. Luna has only deepened as initially promising leads have soured and potential evidence troves have failed to identify a suspect.

Privately, investigators have expressed frustration that their efforts have yet to produce a break in the high-profile case. Agents again retraced Luna's final movements this week and visited a Pennsylvania Turnpike tollbooth to ascertain how well workers can see into the backs of vehicles. A source close to the investigation called those steps "desperation stuff."

The source, a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there has been little clear progress and some setbacks in the case in recent weeks. Most significant, though authorities collected DNA and partial fingerprint evidence, they have not matched those clues to a potential suspect.

. . . In the first weeks of the investigation, the killing drew widespread media attention and inspired far-reaching theories by armchair and Internet detectives.

The 38-year-old prosecutor had disappeared as he was preparing to conclude a drug conspiracy trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, but authorities have found no evidence linking the killing to Luna's work and instead have closely reviewed details of Luna's personal life for possible clues to explain his mysterious death.

There's a certainly an object lesson about jumping to conclusions in this episode. The desire to believe the worst about some people is one of the more unpleasant aspects of human nature. It seems to become even stronger when the targets are of the 'wrong' race, nationality or profession. I am seeing the same rush to judgment in regard to the sexual abuse of a child case filed against megastar Michael Jackson. I believe it best to wait and see whether the prosecutor can present convincing evidence against him.

9:32 PM