Naming the guilty. . .but guiltless
A driver unknowingly runs over a small child. Should the driver’s name be made public? Or would you be creating a second innocent victim?
By Steve Gust
Steve Gust is managing editor of The Seminole Producer, Seminole, OK.
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. 2 (May 1989), p. 2.
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.
When reporting the violent death of a toddler, can the press overstep its responsibilities to the public and ruin another life in the process?
That was the decision I faced last spring as the managing editor of a small daily newspaper. To this day I don’t know if I made the right call. This one isn’t in any of the textbooks.
Seminole, population 8,500, is in east-central Oklahoma. The Seminole Producer last May brought the town the sad news of the death of a 14- month-old girl named Lacy. A car had rolled over her head.
The girl had been at a lake just east of Seminole with two baby-sitters. The sitters were looking forward to a picnic with others. Lacy and her older brother were playing between the sitters’ car and another car.
The lazy spring day was brought to an abrupt end by Lacy’s brother, who told the others, “That lady run over Lacy!”
Lacy was barely alive when a frantic effort was made to get her to Seminole Municipal Hospital. An emergency medical helicopter was dispatched from Oklahoma City, 50 miles west.
It was too late, Lacy was dead.
Her mother, working at a convenience store, was given the news.
The next day at the office, our police reporter Shirley Nichols pored over the report released by officials. Most of the office and city were talking about the child who had been run over at the lake. The car, which had taken the young life, had left the scene.
Most people believed Lacy was the victim of a hit-and-run driver.
One of the picnic party recognized the woman driving the car as someone he had worked with. Police now had a description of the car and a name for the suspect.
I thought an arrest would be coming soon with manslaughter charges to follow. We had the woman’s name, but I decided to hold it for a couple of days until charges could be filed.
Soon police located the woman and interviewed her. They then took their evidence to the District Attorney’s Office.
On Wednesday I made my weekly trip to the courthouse to pick up court records. I took great pride in getting misdemeanor, felony, civil, traffic, marriage and divorce records accurate. I had been responsible for the publication of thousands of names. Our readers demanded it. I felt it was one of our best services.
I know most of the “courthouse gang” on a first-name basis. Getting additional information on the woman in the car would be no problem.
Assistant District Attorney Donald Beggs was in the court clerk’s office. We shared small talk and then I asked about the baby.
Beggs had closely examined the reports and talked to officers conducting the investigation and interviews.
He had reached his decision.
“Unless some new and dramatic evidence is revealed, this case is simply going to go down as a tragic accident,” he said.
He outlined everything he had seen in the report. In his opinion the driver had not broken the law.
“All indications show that she backed up at a normal speed and left the lake area at a normal speed,” Beggs said. “There was nobody trying to wave her down. I don’t believe she knew about the baby.”
Beggs also said the driver had a great traffic record.
“It’s my job to prove intent to commit wrong,” he said. “That simply doesn’t exist in this case.”
I asked if it was really possible to run over a head and not know it.
“If the accident had happened on concrete I’d say no. But it is possible on dirt.”
The assistant D.A.’s comments troubled me. It would be much tougher to use the woman’s name now. The driver had been in the wrong place at the wrong time – just like Lacy.
Beggs’ decision made for a good story. The next day while I was pounding the piece out on the computer terminal, the driver called Shirley Nichols and asked that her name be kept out of the newspaper. She was crying, Shirley said.
Shirley cupped her hand over the telephone and asked my decision.
I have never had sympathy with requests from those who had been charged. If they were innocent, we would report it. But this was different.
We had always reported names of traffic victims and drivers. Again, this was different. Despite Beggs’ decision, many people would always remember this woman as “the baby killer.”
Legally we were free to run her name, but were we morally? Under Oklahoma law, we could run the names of rape and child molestation victims.
Morally we couldn’t.
Did this woman, herself an innocent victim, deserve the same kind of protection?
She would always have to be accountable to herself. That was enough. Gauging from her reaction on that particular day, her pain would always be as great, if not greater, than criminals we publicized.
I didn’t think the public’s interest would have been served by the publication of her name. I withheld it. I felt I had done the right thing then, but sometimes I wonder.
Did the public have a right to know?