If Not Justice For Everyone, Then For Whom?

by The Cowl Editor on October 24, 2021


If Not Justice For Everyone, Then For Whom?

Addressing Racial Bias in News Coverage of Missing Persons

by Ashley Seldon ’24

It has been impossible for the tragedy of Jelani Day’s disappearance and murder to get adequate news coverage due to the prominence of the Gabby Petito case. Day, a graduate student at Illinois State University who aspired to be a doctor, went missing on Aug. 24. Two days after being declared missing, deputies found his car in a wooded area south of Illinois Valley YMCA, with the clothes that Day had been wearing when people last saw him. Nine days after the car was found, authorities found his body in the Illinois River after police received a tip. In the last week, autopsy reports shared the grotesque detail that Day’s body was found in the river with no organs or eyeballs in his sockets. However, these original reports are now being struck down by LaSalle County police, saying Day’s organs are not missing, but were severely decomposed because of how long Day’s body was floating in the river. Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, has pointed out the differences in the management of Gabby Petito’s investigation versus her son’s. She accuses the police department of handling this case with no sense of urgency or “drive.” The Black and Missing Foundation co-founder, Derrica Wilson, has commented on this, saying, “They’re asking ‘But why wasn’t the same attention or resources dedicated to my loved one’s case’…There’s a lot of Gabby Petitos in the Black and Brown community.” Carmen Day has recently requested federal help to find out how her son ended up in the river. The police have not yet confirmed Day’s case as a homicide because they are awaiting results from toxicology tests.

The details of Petito’s case have remained in the headlines for weeks. Whenever new information is presented, it is covered by all major news stations and done thoroughly. Her tragic story is interesting for many reasons. One is that Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie had a YouTube channel with 6,000 subscribers where they have a vlog posted of their travels. The transparency is also interesting. Her boyfriend, Laundrie, returned from their trip early without her, forcing her parents to launch an investigation. Many have been invested in the Petito case since the declaration of her disappearance, with the FBI helping quickly to find her body. Now, there is a special called “48 Hours” on CBS and Paramount+ that goes over the disappearance of Petito and the hunt for Laundrie.

The differences between the cases are, first, that Petito had a small social media following. Second, Petito’s murder seems to have to do with a domestic violence dispute. Third, Jelani Day was a black man, and Gabby Petito was a white woman. 

It is pretty apparent that Petito’s boyfriend killed her, or at least that he knows something. The only work left for the police is to track Laundrie down. Day’s case is a more time-consuming and, therefore, costly investigation. This immense effort is not something the deputies in his county seem to want to put forth. Petito not only gets a CBS program but also reports on protestors outside of her boyfriend’s family’s house in Florida. Not to say these efforts are not sufficient and necessary to bring about justice for Gabby, but have people forgotten about Jelani Day, whose case presents more questions and whose death seems to have racial implications? A black man being murdered in the woods and his body ending up in a river sounds more similar to a crime that would have happened in the 1950s than in 2021. However, it’s the true story of Jelani Day.

The frequency of Petito’s story being reported over Day’s is obvious, which inherently puts the mysterious death of a white woman at a higher importance than the same fate of  a black man. It is scary to think that the perpetrators of crimes against Black Americans are simply never found or faced with any repercussions. This cycle allows hate crimes to persist, namely because no racist person has to fear that the system will not protect them. News stations will barely report the case, police will give up on the investigations after a few weeks, and the federal government will act as if they had not heard anything. This country’s most elite systems do not value the lives of African Americans. America’s inability to report the cases of marginalized groups and give them sufficient investigations is a recurring history in our biased justice system.