"Dumbfounded" might be the best way to describe the way Larry Connors and Vickie Newton looked when Julius Hunter ended his report on the funeral of Cassandra "Casey" Williamson, the six-year-old girl who was murdered in Valley Park last week.
An awkward silence lasted just four seconds after Hunter's final words, but it seemed much, much longer. Hunter's closing comment went metaphysically beyond the usual who-what-where-when of a normal news story. Julius added a "D," as in "damnation," to the four W's.
The video portion of the report ended with ministers asking the congregation to keep Casey's family in their prayers and the assemblage singing "Amazing Grace."
Then it was Hunter, back in the KMOV-TV studio, seated behind the news desk and facing the camera. Hunter intoned: "Twenty-four-year-old Johnny Johnson is charged tonight with first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed criminal action and attempted forcible rape. He made his first court appearance yesterday. Police say Johnson has admitted guilt in this despicable, heinous crime. He's being held tonight without bond.
"And of course we cannot convict Johnson without a trial -- he's innocent until proven guilty -- but can I just say," as he put his right hand over his heart and then extended his arm outward, "editorializing, which I can't do -- whoever committed the crime, this horrible, terrible crime, may he rot in hell."
Newton and Connors appeared more than a little stunned.
"Julius, thank you for the update," Newton almost whispered.
Connors followed with a quiet "All right, Julius."
Hunter stopped short of exhorting the audience to re-enact the classic B-grade Western scene in which a worked-up crowd is told it's time to "string up" whoever is being held in the county jail for whatever crime has recently been committed.
And he stopped short of 'Yeah, we'll give him a fair trial -- and then we'll hang him.' He just wished eternal damnation upon the perpetrator, in front of 250,000 viewers.
Predictably, the audience loved it. Calls and e-mails poured into the station the next day. The first day's e-mail log tallied 63 backing Hunter's damnation and three opposed. KMOV's switchboard operator finally stopped keeping track of the calls. There are stacks of letters. Frank O. Pinion (a.k.a. John Craddock) of KTRS (550 AM) made Hunter's comment the topic of his drive-time show.
Hunter has been doing television news in this town for more than three decades, so he should know what he's doing. He denies that he planned to say what he did.
"I didn't. It was gut, spur-of-the-moment," Hunter says. "As detached as I'm supposed to be from the news, here's what I think all the time: I can be neutral but I can't be neutered when I deliver the news.
"In the 32 years that I've been in the business, I have not heard such a groundswell of positive, supportive reaction that I've had from this whole thing," says Hunter. "One of the e-mails I got said, 'My husband and I jumped up at the same time and said 'Yes!'" That's been the reaction. Everywhere I go -- to the supermarket, to the service station, the bank, to wherever I've been lately -- people have said thank you and 'I wanted to say that,' and another general reaction has been 'Glad to know you're a human being and not a robot.'"
Of course, this kind of thing can get out of hand. That's why even TV newsrooms have something called "management." Before Hunter followed up with a "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" riff from the Peter Finch character in Network, he had closed-door sessions with news director Marty Van Housen and station president/general manager Allan Cohen.
"The management was not exactly happy with my statement. You can understand why," Hunter says. "'Reprimand' was too strong of a word. Each wanted me to confess that I knew what I had said and that I wasn't under some hallucinogenic propulsion."
Hunter says he won't say something like that again, but he stops short of apologizing:
"I mean, my goodness, a six-year-old girl is taken off into the woods by somebody -- and I say somebody, because I'm not convicting this guy -- but a trusting, young, sweet girl is taken off into the woods; there's an attempt to rape her, and then, when that fails, she's beaten in the head with a big rock. I get emotional talking about it now because my two-year-old granddaughter sang 'Farmer in the Dell' for me, on her second birthday, the day before I said that on the air."
And it's not unusual that Hunter would say something after a report of a particularly distressing crime has happened. It's just over the top when he recommends where someone should spend eternity.
Hunter is not averse to providing weird commentary. At times, he's pompous and sounds like Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island. Other times, his surreal banter makes him come off like Walter Cronkite on psilocybin. Years ago, during some technical difficulty with video, he told the viewing audience, "The diesel fuel in the tape machine seems to have jellified."
Though he admits he has made goofball comments, Hunter realizes he stepped over the line this time.
"Some critics may say this was totally irresponsible," Hunter says. "It was totally unscripted; it was totally spontaneous."
Wait until the Belo Corporation, the media chain that owns Channel 4, gets a load of the reaction -- like this e-mail from someone named Tobias:
"After the comment Julius made last night, I swear I will never watch any other news programs unless he's on it. Way to go, Julius."
Yikes. If Julius' passing judgment during a newscast catches on, the next sweeps week could feature a live remote from Mount Olympus with special-effects lightning bolts shooting from his fingertips.