A decision to name names
The Orange County Register usually withholds names of alleged rape victims. But in this case, it made an exception to its own policy.
By Tim Alger
Tim Alger is assistant metro editor, The Orange County Register, Santa Ana, CA.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 3 (June 1989), pp. 1,8.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
It was the sensational trial of the year – a former beauty queen from Israel was accused of kidnapping her two toddlers from their father, a famous surgeon with a mansion in one of Orange County’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Orly Lapin, 32, readily admitted abducting and hiding the children for five months because she disagreed with a judge’s decision to give her ex- husband custody. She claimed her former husband was molesting their 4-year-old daughter. He was a philanderer, he was violent, he was a homosexual, he was untrustworthy, and he was an abuser of drugs and alcohol, she said. In her view, she was only trying to protect her babies.
Thus the real defendant became ex-husband Ron Lapin, 48, an advocate of controversial “bloodless surgery” techniques that limit the loss of blood.
Long popular among Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lapin now draws in many patients who fear they might contract AIDS through transfusions.
The case was so bizarre that it gained prominent play in The Orange County Register and the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times.
A publicist was on hand each day to offer Orly Lapin’s perspective on courtroom developments. But Ron Lapin was not without ammunition; he took the witness stand and claimed his ex-wife once threatened to kill the children if he didn’t give her $100,000, poured sugar into the gas tank of his Mercedes, and phoned in a bomb threat to a bank where he was a shareholder.
Then Orly Lapin unveiled her surprise witness.
A former nanny at Ron Lapin’s “Casa Shalom” mansion testified that the surgeon had raped her and sexually fondled his daughter while giving her a bath. She said he was the father of her 2-month-old daughter, and that she had hit him with a paternity suit.
As assistant metro editor supervising the Register‘s court coverage, I decided to use the nanny’s name in reporting her trial testimony. The Times did not, causing a reader of both papers to fire off a complaining letter to the Register‘s ombudsman, Pat Riley.
The reader questioned the “reporting ethics and prudent judgment” of the Register. “It is my understanding that newspapers respectful of society do not reveal the names of rape victims,” he wrote. “Such discretion stands clear of the healing process and is (a) basic dignity upheld by the press.”
So why did the Register identify this woman after she recounted a violent sexual assault? the reader asked. Why wasn’t the nanny “entitled to the same respect granted to other rape victims?”
Made on deadline, my decision to name the woman had been quick and seat of-the-pants. I didn’t take the issue up with the higher newsroom echelon because it appeared to be clear cut: The nanny had an axe to grind, so her name should accompany her accusations.
But the opposite decision by the Times and the spotlight thrown on the matter by the ombudsman forced more thought. Was mine the right choice?
One of my superiors informed me that she was unhappy she had not been consulted. At first blush, she didn’t think the nanny should have been identified.
I agree that victims of sexual offenses deserve special consideration, and the Register normally withholds the names of sex-crime victims. On the other hand, we make a practice of naming people who file lawsuits including those claiming sexual harassment or assault.
Register policy also forbids the use of accusations leveled by unnamed sources.
Clearly, the nanny’s testimony was not given under the normal circumstances. Consider that:
- Ron Lapin was not on trial; his wife was. The nanny was not called to the stand as a crime victim-the usual situation in which a rape victim appears in a court story-but to bolster [Orly] Lapin’s contention that her ex-husband was dangerous.
- The nanny had sued Ron Lapin, claiming he is the father of her child. She first raised the rape allegation as part of her paternity suit, six months after she said the surgeon assaulted her.
- The nanny never contacted police about the alleged rape, and Ron Lapin was never prosecuted. The District Attorney’s Office, made aware of the rape accusation when the nanny filed her paternity suit, declined to file criminal charges.
- The nanny suddenly came forward and made the allegations in the midst of a highly publicized trial. It could serve her purposes to attack Ron Lapin’s character in order to gain a beneficial settlement of her paternity suit.
- Since Ron Lapin was not on trial for a crime, he had no opportunity to refute the nanny’s accusation in open court. He was not provided with the option of taking the stand after the nanny testified, and his own lawyer could not cross-examine her.
It is still my opinion that the nanny should not be protected by anonymity. If my superiors had decided to not identify her, I would have urged that we not report the rape allegation at all.
In the ombudsman’s column, Register Editor N. Christian Anderson and Managing Editor Timothy M. Kelly supported my position. The ombudsman agreed and then took the issue one step further, suggesting that newspapers name all rape victims. Hiding their identities “very well might serve to promote the notion that actual rape victims somehow contributed to being victimized,” he wrote.
There was no other fallout from my decision to name the nanny. We avoided using her name in subsequent stories about the Lapins – not because I changed my mind, but because she was not the central character in those follow-ups.
The jury bought Orly Lapin’s story, acquitting her of kidnapping charges. But two months later, Ron and Orly Lapin took their combat into another trial – this time in family court. Each demanded permanent custody of the children.
And the nanny took the stand again.
This time, Ron Lapin won. There was no evidence the surgeon was a homosexual, child molester, or rapist, the judge said, and he awarded the children to their father.
“Obviously both sides aren’t telling the truth in this case,” the judge said. “That’s kind of an understatement.” But he suggested that Orly Lapin fabricated her allegations and enlisted the help of others, including the nanny, to tar her ex-husband.
Particularly unbelievable was the nanny’s testimony that Lapin held a gun to her head throughout a rape, the judge said. “You might ask yourself, is that really credible, really feasible?”
For further analysis of this issue, see “Anonymity for rape victims.”