Celebrity Prosecutor Tommy Pope Coached Criminal Justice Students on Managing the Media
Although Tommy Pope has traded in his South Carolina 16th Circuit Solicitor’s hat to practice law and serve in the state House, he is still most widely known as the man who prosecuted Susan Smith.
It was 1994 when Smith created a sensation by claiming her two young sons, Michael, age 3, and Alex, age 14 months, had been taken in a carjacking. Within months, she was to be convicted of drowning the boys herself. Pope described the media frenzy that then engulfed Union, South Carolina: it was a little bit like the house that fell in The Wizard of Oz. It dropped from the sky without warning and changed the entire landscape of the trial.
This fall, Pope visited Anderson University’s School of Criminal Justice, newly located at the Center for Excellence, just under two miles from AU’s main campus. Pope’s topic appropriately was law enforcement’s role in managing the media in high-profile cases. The audience consisted of graduate students in the Dynamics of Administration and the Media and Politics classes.
Pope spoke at the invitation of George Ducworth, dean of AU’s School of Criminal Justice. Ducworth and Pope both served as South Carolina solicitors during the 1990s and early 2000s.
In addressing the necessity of media management, Pope explained that training is essential. “Excellence,” he said, “is what you do, what you habitually do.” He likened media and leadership training for law enforcement personnel to the expertise of handling a firearm.
Reactions have to be so ingrained, so instinctive, that when the time comes to shoot, an officer can react without error. This same solid grounding, he argued, is necessary in dealing with the media.
Pope should know. During Smith’s trial, every major news outlet in the country had reporters in Union.
Pope said he witnessed up-close how the national spotlight brings out the best and the worst of humanity. While some grabbed hold to promote a just outcome as they understood it, others saw an opportunity for their 15 minutes of fame. The publicity was commandeered to sell everything from books to hotdogs. Pope recalled a citizen associated with the case who agreed to a book contract with the understanding that the book would not be published until after the trial was over. The publisher reneged, releasing it day one of the trial anyway. This incident and more Pope related to demonstrate how disorienting the landscape can become under intense media attention.
During the Smith case, Pope found himself being interviewed by Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, and Geraldo Rivera, among others. “You have to know your job and who you’re responsible to,” he said, explaining how crucial it is to stay focused.
In the Smith case, there was scant physical evidence, Pope said. Becoming distracted or enticed into releasing information could damage the case. Yet ignoring the media in this kind of situation is not an option either, he told students. While the code of professional conduct demands that law enforcement take care not to prejudice a case, Pope said, the public has an inherent need to hear from law enforcement. A reply of “No comment,” isn’t always the answer. It’s important, he explained, to let folks know officials are there, that they’re working the case, and to acknowledge important questions, even if it is impossible to respond to them with the detail the media is constantly pressing for.
While the Smith case is his most famous, Pope is broadly qualified to address criminal justice classes at Anderson University. He has over 25 years of law enforcement and prosecutorial experience. He has lectured nationally to state prosecutors’ associations, and he provides legal commentary to national media outlets. Closer to home, in 2008, he won the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor. A managing partner of Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Pope was re-elected this November to the South Carolina House of Representatives for a second two-year term.
Dean Ducworth said providing AU students access to professionals with Pope’s credentials is something that distinguishes AU’s criminal justice program. At AU, criminal justice professionals can receive a master’s degree with an emphasis on executive leadership in less than two years. It is a 36-hour program specifically designed for professionals in management positions in the criminal justice field. The program provides the convenience of online instruction with the networking and personal-contact advantages of on campus courses. That personal contact includes professionals like Tommy Pope.