Vulnerable sources and journalistic responsibility

Are we our brother’s keeper?

It is a rare chance to interview a killer, to tell the public what was on his mind. But the killer is in a mental hospital and the interview is done without his lawyer’s consent. What do you publish – if anything?

By Robert M. Hitt III

Robert M. Hitt III is managing editor of The State. Reporter Rich Greer contributed to this report.

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. 5 (August 1989), pp. 1,8. his 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.

 

A teenager walks into an elementary school and randomly fires a pistol, killing two children and wounding nine other people. It is called the worst school shooting in history, and draws national attention. The teenager’s thoughts are of intense public interest.

You are given the number of a telephone in the locked ward of the mental hospital where the suspect is being kept until doctors form an opinion of his competency to stand trial.

Do you call the suspect? Do you report what he says?

A reporter for The State, Columbia, S.C., did telephone that suspect and The State did publish some of his comments.

The suspect, James Wilson, a 19-year-old high school dropout, has pleaded guilty but mentally ill and has been sentenced to death in South Carolina’s electric chair for those shootings on September 26, 1988.

With a number provided by Wilson’s grandmother – who said he was lucid – and at her suggestion, the reporter had two conversations with Wilson.

The result was a page 1 story headlined “Shootings ‘like a dream’ .”

In that story, Wilson admitted to the shootings and said he felt “real bad about what happened.” He also talked about a People magazine article on shootings at an elementary school in Winnetka, IL, and a book about Wayne Gacy’s killings, which he had just read.

Wilson had torn the article from People and “I read it every day. I had it for a few months,” he said, adding that he could understand that killer. “I think I may have copied her in a way.”

He talked, too, about his childhood – how he had felt neglected, how he had been abused and ridiculed by schoolmates and his father. He said he had thought a lot before taking his grandfather’s pistol, buying cartridges and driving to the school.

The State published those comments, but not without forethought and caution.

Before telephoning Wilson, the reporter and an editor discussed the lack of taping equipment and of how they would verify the identity of who was reached on the telephone.

A man answered the telephone and summoned Wilson by hollering his name. A youth with strong country drawl came to the phone. The reporter identified himself and Wilson responded “Yes, sir,” when asked if he would like to talk about the shootings.

Wilson’s identity was verified by answers to several questions, including his birth date, and the location of a particular magazine in his home.

Questions were asked to determine his mental state and ability to understand that the newspaper was seeking his opinions for publication. He was asked about his surroundings and how he felt he was being treated. Questions were repeated two or three times to compare answers.

In a second interview, Wilson was asked to clarify ambiguous or incomplete answers. Wilson said he was on no medication at the hospital other than a pill to help him sleep at night. The interviews occurred between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Three or four of us read the transcriptions of the telephone conversations with Wilson, and our lawyer was involved in our deliberations. My greatest concern was whether Wilson was lucid, that whatever he had to say was newsworthy.

After that call, I was convinced that Wilson knew exactly what he was doing. Our primary concern was getting the information. In deciding whether to publish, I was compelled by some of the things Wilson had said, where he basically said why he had gone on that rampage.

The State published Wilson’s comments the next day. Advocacy groups and lawyers accused the newspaper of being sensationalistic, taking advantage of a mentally ill person and denying the suspect benefit of counsel.

The shootings were a sensational event. But the fact that we could offer the reader some insight into the thinking of someone who would commit such a crime was compelling reason to publish.

The criticism that Wilson was mentally ill and we were taking advantage of him is off base. He was extremely lucid and artful and cagey during the interviews with us.

There is no question that “Jamie” Wilson is crazy in the conversational sense. Before the shootings, he had a long history of psychiatric treatment in a variety of mental health facilities but had always been released. His family had tried to have him judged mentally ill, but he had been judged sane repeatedly.

The criticism that as a newspaper we have a responsibility to aid a defendant in getting a fair trial is preposterous. A complex system of courts protects and defends suspects and the public. Our role is to provide information that the public can use in the evolution of public policy, which includes operation of the courts.

We published “Jamie” Wilson’s story because it allowed the public to hear the suspect talk about his state of mind. The story satisfied the question of why, which is seldom answered in cases like this.

Would we handle the Wilson story in the same way, given a second chance? Yes.

Would we call another suspect at a state mental hospital? Maybe, depending on circumstances. In the Wilson story, we helped the public better understand a tragedy and the weaknesses in a mental health system. We would need equally compelling reasons to publish any information gained by another call to a state hospital.