“Someone had to be her advocate”

A newspaper’s crusade to keep a child’s death from being forgotten

In life, the child had been failed by the system that was supposed to protect her. In death, The Bridgeport Post was determined that the system would not fail her again.

By Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi is city editor of The Bridgeport (CT) Post.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1990), 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.

 

When 3-year-old Brenda Lee Hart was brutally beaten to death in a poor Bridgeport neighborhood just before Christmas, not many people seemed to care.

The child had been given by her mother to a friend to keep. Police said Brenda Lee had lived in at least three other places before this last home, including an alleged crack house with her mother. Her father, relatives said, had been in prison. Her mother, from time to time, showed upon street corners.

An autopsy report told the horrible story of Brenda Lee’s short life and death. The child was the victim of systematic abuse that may have begun soon after birth. She had injuries over most of her body including internal damage to the brain and old, partially healed bone fractures.

Brenda Lee’s caretaker, Pearlie Alfrod, said she found the girl lying face down in the hallway of Alfrod’s apartment. She died a week later. Alfrod told police that the dog had pulled the child over once, causing her to hit her head, and that she had also fallen on concrete stairs.

One day after Christmas, a medical examiner ruled that the child’s death was a homicide. But it was May 4 before police disclosed the cause of death and started an investigation.

For several years, my newspaper, The Bridgeport Post, had been hammering editorially at the police department’s ineffectiveness and its seeming apathy toward crime against minorities. But the inaction on the Hart case, along with another incident, prompted Publisher Dudley Thomas to suggest an unprecedented front-page editorial lambasting the Bridgeport Police Department for its lack of leadership. The idea was unanimously endorsed by Post editors who felt it was a community newspaper’s responsibility to keep a poor child’s murder from being forgotten.

On May 17, our readers opened their newspapers to read, “The beating death of a 3-year-old child is not a routine matter. It’s not like an auto theft or burglary that goes unattended.” The editorial said the Hart murder investigation had been “mired in confusion” and suggested that “if Bridgeport can’t run its police department effectively, the state should step in.”

Leaders in the African-American community who had been outraged by the lack of action, were pleased with the newspaper’s prodding. “It seems to me the police dropped the ball on this. Where are their priorities? Ticketing cars?” asked State Representative Ernest Newton, whose district includes Brenda Lee’s last home.

And, as a matter of fact, immediately after the editorial, police stepped up their ticket writing on expired parking meters around The Bridgeport Post.

The next step for the Post was to ask the state to offer a reward in the case. But that request hit a dead end.

Weeks passed. “Progress is being made,” police kept saying, but still there was no arrest. Thomas asked editors what they thought about the newspaper offering a $5000 reward for information that lead to an arrest and conviction in the case.

As city editor, I endorsed the idea without hesitation. Over the years, I had seen many examples of apathy in the city. But this case was inexcusable. If the reward would prod the police investigation along or help provide new clues, why not?

“Someone had to be an advocate for her and no one in the city seemed to want to. We saw it as our role,” said Executive Editor Robert A. Laska. “If she were a child in one of the suburban communities, there would have been a public outcry.”

On July 11, the Post announced the reward offer in a front-page story accompanied by a front-page editorial:

“Shame on the city of Bridgeport. It is time for action . . . It is time for public outrage about the inaction in the Brenda Lee Hart case, an inaction which is symbolic of what is wrong with Bridgeport.

” . . . Shame on the city of Bridgeport. More city residents turned out in recent years to protest a proposed Little League complex . . . than have voiced outrage about the rising number of homicides in Bridgeport and the death of this defenseless child.”

Five days later, Pearlie Alfred, Brenda Lee’s unofficial custodian, was charged with manslaughter.

Some in the police hierarchy said the reward had nothing to do with the arrest. But Ted Meekins, president of the Bridgeport Guardians, a group representing minority police officers, disagreed. Meekins said the efforts of the newspaper along with those of the minority community, pushed the police department to fully investigate the case. “Had it not been for Bridgeport Post Publisher Dudley Thomas keeping this issue alive, I do not believe this would have been the case.”

The Post’s reward offer was reported by other local media, although that wasn’t the paper’s intent. “We didn’t want the newspaper to become the story,” Thomas said. “What is important is that the Post didn’t allow this story to slip through the cracks and was able to gather and marshal the indignation of the readership to get to the bottom of Brenda Lee Hart’s death.”

Would the Post do the same thing again?

“It’s not something we’d look forward to doing again, but we wouldn’t rule it out,” Thomas said. “I would hope the situation would never arise again.”

 

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