SALISBURY, MD---When the attorney of Beltway Sniper suspect Lee Malvo was asked in court why his client committed random killings, his answer was simple: The Matrix made him do it.
The 1999 Keanu Reeves blockbuster film has been used in court to explain so many violent acts that the legal community has come up with a nickname for it-“The Matrix defense.” Salisbury University communication and theatre arts faculty Cynthia Cooper explores the logic-and frustrations-behind this and similar media-courtroom phenomena in her new book Violence in the Media and its Influence on Criminal Defense (McFarland & Co. Publishers Inc.).
The book builds upon Cooper’s 1993 doctoral dissertation, which looked at how such arguments surrounding radio and comic books in the 1930s and ’40s helped establish legal precedents. For research on the effect of more modern media, however, she went straight to the source.
“The policy work is basically sitting in a law library going through stacks of papers,” she said. “With this, I was able to go out and talk to people about how this was affecting them.”
Her research included interviews with another inmate incarcerated after a shooting he said was influenced by The Matrix. She also sat in on part of the Florida trial of Lionel Tate, who claimed his violent acts were the result of watching professional wrestlers on television.
She warns that the lines between media influence and societal guidance aren’t always as clear as some would like: “My goal in writing this book was to try to give some balance to the perceptions that are out there. People have very strong opinions. Either it’s the media’s fault, or they take an entirely different standpoint and say, ‘Where are the parents?’”
Because ratings systems are flawed and often mistrusted, however, she says the reality likely lies somewhere in between: “Blaming media violence for real violence is an oversimplification. Blaming parents for youth violence is an oversimplification. This is a complex problem, and we haven’t solved it yet.”
In addition to her position at SU, Cooper chairs the Law and Policy Division of the Broadcast Education Association and is a past research associate at the Center for the Study of Media and Society. She recently directed a media violence discussion group at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, MD.
For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at www.salisbury.edu.