The First 48 Makes Millions While the Innocent Have Their Lives Ruined

Once you're charged with murder on A&E's The First 48, you're guilty for life - even if you're innocent.

The First 48 Makes Millions While the Innocent Have Their Lives Ruined

In July 2009, 18-year-old Cameron Coker's life was ripped apart for future viewing by a national audience.

The wrongly accused have their lives ruined, all for a bit of reality entertainment.

Coker, who'd previously been convicted of dealing drugs, was now the prime suspect in the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy at an apartment complex just east of Highway 6. For this homicide case, Harris County Sheriff's investigators had company: A film crew from the A&E show The First 48 was there to show the nuts and bolts of the investigation. Entering its tenth season, the series was based on the premise that the first 48 hours of a police investigation are the most crucial. After that time frame, potential evidence goes missing; crime scenes become contaminated; witnesses disappear.

This episode focuses on the murder of Erik Elizarraraz, who was killed on June 20, 2009, after a scuffle with a group of men at the Fox Pointe Apartments. The boy allegedly exchanged words with two guys in a gold Toyota or Honda earlier in the day, and the guys had returned that night, along with some friends. When Elizarraraz went to the balcony, someone in the group supposedly yelled up at him — calling him a "cholo." Regrettably, Elizar­raraz took the bait. Witnesses said he went down to confront one of the men, who hit him to the ground and then shot him point-blank in the head as he tried to get to his feet.

Cameron Coker, pictured here about eight months after his charge was dismissed, called his wrongful incarceration "torture."
Facebook screenshot
Cameron Coker, pictured here about eight months after his charge was dismissed, called his wrongful incarceration "torture."
"Straight Menace," the episode featuring Cameron Coker's interrogation, is still being aired, despite the fact that Coker was released and the victim's homicide is still unsolved.
Screenshots from A&E's The First 48
"Straight Menace," the episode featuring Cameron Coker's interrogation, is still being aired, despite the fact that Coker was released and the victim's homicide is still unsolved.

When the episode, "Straight Menace," aired eight months later, Coker wasn't able to watch, since he was in Harris County Jail awaiting trial on the murder charge. But everyone else who tuned in could see just how the tall, skinny kid not yet out of his teens got pulled into a homicide investigation. Turns out serendipity played a big part.

Coker's name comes up three days into the investigation while Sgt. Ronald Hunter questions an alleged eyewitness to the shooting. The man, who looks to be barely out of his teens (he's never identified), glances at a photograph of young black males taped to the back of Hunter's office door and points to it. He says one of the men is "Killa" — the shooter.

The alleged witness says he knows "with everything I love and Jesus Christ as my witness, that's him."

When two other alleged witnesses identify Coker in a photo spread, the investigators are sure they have their man.

Looking into the camera, Hunter pontificates on the photo that had been on his door.

"This picture, as far as I'm concerned, is a divine intervention," he says. "And I have no idea where this picture came from, but the witness took this picture and he immediately picked out this suspect. And I'd like to think we had a little help from God himself."

Unfortunately, God subsequently dropped out of the investigation, and the three alleged eyewitnesses recanted. But not until after Coker spent nearly three years in jail. The recantations, along with the fact that prosecutors withheld police reports from Coker's attorney showing that investigators had information on another suspect, led the Harris County District Attorney's Office to drop the charge.

But "Straight Menace" is still shown on A&E, and the tragedy inflicted on this wrongfully accused man is only the latest injustice in this show's history. In Detroit, city police shot a seven-year-old girl in the head in a botched attempt to catch a suspect sought on The First 48. And in Miami, according to an analysis of court records done by our sister paper Miami New Times, 15 men have walked free after being charged with murder under the program's glare.

Evidence suggests that the television show puts undue pressure on police departments to hurry their investigations and make quick arrests. The wrongly accused have their lives ruined, all for a bit of reality entertainment. But The First 48 is one of the most popular shows on television, with millions tuning in every week. With ratings as seductive as this, what do a few mistakes matter?
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Few jobs elicit greater esteem than a detective's. There's a cultural fascination with solving murders, manifested in the sheer number of TV shows that deconstruct homicide investigations. Crime television — from the endless stream of CSI spinoffs to Cold Case to Law & Order — accounts for nearly one-fourth of all prime-time television programming. This demand means production companies are constantly under pressure to expand upon the standard crime-television formula, according to a 2007 study titled "The CSI Effect." No channel is more bound to that effect than A&E. Over the past decade, the station has birthed a dizzying assortment of crime programs: Cold Case Files, American Justice, City Confidential, Investigative Reports, Crime 360 and The First 48, which first aired in 2004.

The narrative structure of The First 48 is both conventional and chronological, and nearly every episode begins with a murder. But the show's true genius lies in how it ratchets up the drama with an artificially imposed deadline.

"For homicide detectives," the narrator pronounces in a gravelly timbre at the program's start, "the clock starts ticking the moment they are called. Their chance of solving a murder is cut in half if they don't get a lead within the first 48 hours." Throughout the program, producers splice into the frame a ticking clock, and detectives may fret over their deadline. Dramatic tension mounts as investigators collect evidence, interview witnesses and identify suspects, until it hits a crescendo with a climactic confrontation between suspect and detective during the episode's final interrogation.

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22 comments
marquse1
marquse1

Good article but misleading title. Sadly, a lot of detectives are satisfied sending people 20 years in jail based on hunches and appearances.

JQ127
JQ127

I can't believe anyone is sticking up for these criminals. If most of them were white we wouldn't hear a word from any of you. Just because witnesses are too scared of 'snitching' and testifying doesn't mean the police didn't do their job. They work with what they have. I've seen this episode and it's obvious he did it.  All these young black thug murderers we see on this show have ruined their own lives. Don't blame it on a tv show. If they were law abiding tax paying hard working citizens they wouldn't have been looked at in the first place.  Trying to say the show ruined this mongoloid's life is insane. What you thug supporters aren't mentioning is most of these thugs would shoot you down for a dime. Yet you people talk like it's just a case of mistaken identity and the cops are racist. But since the kid is black he's innocent and the cops are racist.  I love this show and respect the hell out of the Harris County homicide cops. Thank God they're around to combat murderers-white or black. This is like the old Trayvon case. He beat the crap out of George Zimmerman but no one mentions that. Again it's not if he's innocent but if he's black . You people are the racists not the cops doing their job. 

liz_5
liz_5

I know cameron n that wasn't even the whole Interview its not about skin color I'm white. He is a very nice respectful guy. Yea may have messed up with a weed case but weed n murder... no totally different love my boy cameron. ♥if u disagree it really doesn't matter cause he is home

OBAMA Answer This
OBAMA Answer This

Maybe Harris County Sheriffs should be going after those whom they can prove have committed crimes, instead. Namely, there are federal judges and some locals who committed felony crimes it seems, but not one arrest or indictment yet. This is all in a case of a white man whose career was ruined after he refused to practive illegal discrimination against blacks and men apparently at a big local NPO. The judges allowed known perjury to stop the case without a jury trial, very illegally. See my FB page for more info, as the Obama admin. also seems unwilling to prosecute or do anything despite proof via court documents of various felony crimes that took plave in Harris County and elsewhere. This is at a time when lots of blacks are unemployed. The man involved had been hiring students of PV A&M, which is a traditionally black university. My page has a link to a few websites with some of the court documents showing evidence of felony criminal acts. Also on my FB page is info links showing the man has sent a letter and affidavit about the crimes to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the DOJ about having sent previous messages for help against the corruption but to no avail. This is bad. This is very bad. Holder and President Obama took oaths to uphold the Law and Constitution, and both are over the federal court system and judges. They should be impeaching them, not covering for them -- if that is what they are doing. Is someone blackmailing them or pulling strings behind the scene to prevent even them from acting?

jaybmichael
jaybmichael

This case is hardly typical of most. Incredibly biased article.

a.mackay90
a.mackay90

This article is as biased as they purport the TV show to be, go and watch the episode, and tell me if you'd like this kid roaming around in your neighbourhood. Does witnesses recanting their testimony mean that someone is innocent, or does it mean the witness has been go to by the defendant? We'll never know as this case won't be going to court. When 1 witness changes their mind, we can conclude that they just aren't sure, but when several change their minds it makes us think that there is a another power acting upon them. A&E don't commit the murders, they just film the aftermath, if you lived in these mostly poor deprived areas you'd want the police around trying to catch these mostly young men, and keep them off your streets. The job of the cops is made that much harder by the stupid no snitching policy enforced by ppl who don't have the best interest of the majority of the folk at heart. Don't get me wrong, I have lived, live, in very poor deprived neighbourhoods, and I know most of the time the cops ain't your friend, but surly when it's the murder of a young kid it's a different matter. The cops can only work with what they have, most of the homicide cops seem to be a breed apart from the rest, if the years of watching the 1st 48 are anything to go by. They don't have it all their own way, the defence council of the accused usually gives them a very hard time, and rightly so, it's about the only way justice can be served, if an innocent person gets convicted, it just means the defence haven't done their jobs, or the cops have lied on purpose, and if the cops have lied then they should be prosecuted too.

a.mackay90
a.mackay90

this article is as biased as they purport the TV show to be, go and watch the episode, and tell me if you'd like this kid roaming around in your neighbourhood. Does witnesses recanting their testimony mean that someone is innocent, or does it mean that they have been go to by the defendant? We'll never know as they case won't be going to court, when 1 witness changes his mind, we can conclude that they just aren't sure, but when several change their minds it make us think that there is a another power acting upon them. A&E don't commit the murders, they just film it, and if you lived in these poor deprived areas you'd want the police around trying to catch these mostly young men, and keep them off your streets. The job of the cops is made all the more hard from this stupid no snitching policy enforced by ppl who don't have the best interest of the majority of the folk at heart. Don't get me wrong, I have lived, live, in very poor deprived neighbourhoods, and I know most of the time the cops ain't your friend, but surly when it the murder of a young kid it's a different matter. The cops can only work with what they have, most of the homicide cops seem to be a breed apart from the rest, if the years of watching the 1st 48 are anything to go by. They don't have it all their own way, the defence council of the accused usually give them a very hard time, and rightly so, it's about the only way justice can be served, if an innocent person gets convicted, it's just means the defence hasn't done their jobs, or the cops of lied on purpose, and if the cops have lied then they should be prosecuted too.

YellowJournalism
YellowJournalism

Lol @ all 3 witnesses not testifying... Hmmm, I wonder why?? Now the taxpayers get to pay the settlement so this monster can walk free. I guarantee he will be in some form of the DOC in less than 3 years. Witness intimidation and a subsequent failure to raise charges does not mean innocent, it just means the streets got the witnesses. Have fun feeling sorry for the poor gangster drug dealer.

charlaurie
charlaurie

This is outrageous! In our day of DNA and forensics why is so much credence provided to eyewitness accounts alone?! More to the point, why why WHY is this not headline news instead of the inane fascination of something like "Justin Bieber" who is given not one, but four headlines for CNN and other primary news outlets like it? People's lives are being ruined!!! How can A&E get away with it and keep showing the episodes?! I wish I was a lawyer-i'd class action lawsuit their ass. As it is, I'll have to settle for "voting with my dollar"---I won't buy another A&E product as long as I live. And yes, I will tell ALL my friends. Bastards!!!!

Melanie Martin
Melanie Martin

I saw this episode when it first aired and googled his name a few times following the show to see when his court date was. They sure did make him seem like a horrible human being and guilty as hell.

marquse1
marquse1

@JQ127 Who is sticking up for the criminals??? This article is sticking up for people who are wrongly accused on sub par investigations - otherwise called the innocent.

marquse1
marquse1

@a.mackay90 The mere fact that your argument states: would you like those kids around your neighborhood shows that you are more interested in prejudice than justice.

charlaurie
charlaurie

The only people I feel "sorry" for is the sad, diluted people who watch A&Es "docu-drama" masquerading as "entertainment." Its rubbish at the expense of others suffering. I also feel empathy for our hard working detectives who are politically pressured to make a quick arrest with overwhelming caseload and under funding. And NO I don't think someone who is found "not guilty" is the same as innocent--but one of the gr8 things about our system is that we don't imprison people who cannot be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt....AND though you may be right in your prediction about the likelihood of this person's future with the DOC, it is by no means "guaranteed." For those kind of "guarantees" go to Russia or North Korea.

a.mackay90
a.mackay90

@marquse1 @a.mackay90 Yup guilty as charged I am prejudiced against violent, gun toting, disenfranchised thugs is that a problem? Unlike most white, middle class educated people, I couldn't give a damn if people think I am a racist, as long as me and my family are safe that's all I care about. The race card is played with such regularity these days that it has ceased to have any meaning, apartheid era South Africa or 1950s Deep South USA that's racism, wanting to live in a safe neighbourhood isn't. I think that now a days the race issue has become counter productive anyway, when you have an automatic bogey man to blame for everything it takes away the need to accept responsibility for your own actions, and I can't think of any circumstances were that is a good thing.

a.mackay90
a.mackay90

@marquse1 I am sure you are a nice person and your heart is in the right place, but you aren't too good at constructing an argument, you are jumping to conclusions instead of reaching them. You are letting your own prejudice shine thru, as I have never mentioned colour once, so it's yourself who obviously assumes that I am talking about black folk when I say violent thugs. You also I assume I have no sympathy for the ppl featured in the First 48. We can argue back and forth all day long and it won't change the tragedy that lies behind nearly every case featured on the show. Yes most of the offenders are of colour mostly black or Hispanic, most are young and nearly all are male, but there is 1 thing that every single one of them as in common and that is poverty. That is the real tragedy that in a rich country like the USA with all it's opportunities that there are 16 year old kids who are so disenfranchised, can see absolutely nothing in their lives are so jaded at that young age that they think it's OK to use AK-47 in residential areas without a thought to what it might do to other people, how can this happen in a country like the USA? IMO it's partly to do with racism, partly the fact that the USA doesn't have an effective social welfare system and partially to do with the gun laws, there are plenty who will disagree with me, but there has to be some reason why the USA has such a high murder rate compared to other G7 countries. Having said all that my original point stands, I don't want to bring my kids up in a neighbourhood like that, no one should have to live like that. Nice talking to you BTW, keep safe and peace.

marquse1
marquse1

@a.mackay90 @marquse1Now that you have admitted that you are predjudiced you can work on admitting that you are ignorant: not all black disenfranchised people are criminals. If you are not concerned about who goes to jail: the innocent or the guilty - all your arguments about protecting Americans are moot.

 
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