NEW YORK -- Viewers at their computer keyboards took charge of a murder investigation reopened by "Dateline NBC" Friday night.
In its broadcast, the newsmagazine revisited the 1989 death of Janice Johnson, a Lockeporte, Nova Scotia, wife and mother of two.
But there was an Internet twist to the saga.
The report, dubbed an "Interactive Dateline Mystery," invited viewers to decide which aspects of the apparent homicide deserved airtime. At five points during the hour, the audience was offered options through a Web site.
Described by anchor Stone Phillips as an "experiment to show you how challenging it can be for even well-meaning professionals to get at the truth," it was a novel, perhaps hokey twist on a feedback technique more commonly used to let viewers pick videos to air on MTV.
Instead, "Dateline" first asked the audience who should be re-questioned: Daughter Darla? Neighbor Clare? The medical examiner?
"If you do log on and vote, your choice will actually change where the story goes next," said Phillips.
After airing in the East and Midwest, the build-your-own news show was scheduled to repeat, in potentially different configurations, for "Dateline" feeds to Mountain and Pacific states.
It turned out that 52 percent of responses in the Eastern and Central time zones chose Clare, "and you're right," declared correspondent John Hockenberry. As that prerecorded segment rolled, Clare Thompson was seen disputing the theory that the death was an accident, as was initially ruled.
At the next juncture, viewers rejected examining the timeline (32 percent of responses) or motive (20 percent) in favor of re-inspecting the crime scene (48 percent).
The West Coast audience chose, in nearly the same percentages, what the other time zones chose.
Pacific time zone viewers chose (48 percent) to continue to question neighbor Clare Thompson and also were in favor (41 percent) to re-inspect the crime scene. They found Clayton Johnson innocent (69 percent) but only 17 percent ruled the death an accident.
The program received more than 100,000 total hits, said Hilary Smith, senior manager for NBC news Communications in New York.
Johnson was found lying unconscious in a pool of blood at the foot of her basement steps. She died in a hospital four hours later.
Although a coroner ruled her death an accident, her husband, Clayton, was arrested, charged and convicted of first-degree murder. He served five years in prison before being released in 1998 on the strength of new evidence supporting the accident theory.
But before learning of his freedom, viewers were placed in a virtual jury box: Did Clayton Johnson do it or not? For the first "Dateline" airing, a hefty 68 percent of responses found him innocent.
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