Naming the Victim

Ombudsman

February 07, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Twenty years ago I was walking at dusk with my 8-year-old daughter in Druid Hill Park when four teen-agers jumped me, held me down, took my wallet and then started stabbing me in the chest. They left with seven dollars and a bloody knife.

I was lucky. My chest wounds oozed lots of red, but were only superficial. For several years, however, my daughter was

frightened whenever she saw groups of approaching strangers. I told our story to the police, and as far as I know the thugs were never caught. The story made the papers with our names, block address, crime details. Living in the city and having covered and edited crime stories for The Evening Sun, I expected that.

I have run in Druid hundreds of times since, but in the mornings when I look like a bum. Today I might think twice about being identified in the papers because of some of today's killer kids squeezing triggers like kids used to squeeze rubber balls. The police say criminals who get away don't usually come back for earlier victims, but who knows?

As an editor here, I've learned that people today seem more scared than 20 years ago. They worry about being identified as victims of violent crime when assailants are at large. The fear is real.

One politician aware of the victims' plight is Sen. Janice Piccinini, of northern Baltimore County. She is sponsoring a bill that would require police and prosecutors to withhold names of all victims of violent crimes except when the victim is dead, missing or says it's OK. The bill is set for a 1 p.m. Tuesday hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in

Annapolis.

The senator says she wants to protect people from harassment and embarrassment. "Violent crimes" by code include arson, burglary, kidnapping, mayhem, robbery with deadly weapon, rape and other sexual offenses.

The bill raises questions of the right of privacy against the right of people to know. I'm against such a law, but think newspapers should print fewer crime victims' names. This paper and some others, but not all, have been using fewer names in recent years.

Sen. Piccinini says her bill would keep names from the initial police records but not from documents when culprits are charged. In 95 percent of the cases, she says, the media lose interest after the initial report.

"Victims who are scared to death because of embarrassment and fear have privacy rights but can't enforce them now. The privacy right is primary, before the right of the public to know. . . . Victims get terrible letters, mail solicitations, other harassment.

"The way the media have withheld the names of rape victims hasn't hurt the stories' news value. . . . I first tried unsuccessfully to get the media to voluntarily agree to withhold names."

Who's against crime victims? No one, but things are not as simple as they may seem.

* It is unrealistic to expect more than 100 newspapers in the area to agree on one plan with many possible ramifications. (Do legislators agree on anything?)

* The bill raises false hopes in victims. It postpones the victims' eventually going public. They must come forth and testify if there is a trial. The bill wouldn't do what it wants: prevent the media from publishing names. The senator knows we could still publish names but would have to work harder to get them. (The victims' address, age, crime details etc. would still be available as clues to the media.)

* As Sun editor John S. Carroll points out, availability of victims' names is necessary in much investigative reporting and may protect victims. Names yield information, more names, more information. When he edited the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, his paper exposed widespread wife beatings because victims' names were public record and victims agreed to talk.

* Not a crime-fighting bill, the measure might even result in police being tempted to be less aggressive in some probes if victims' names are kept a secret in initial reports.

* Names can be important to highlight the pervasive nature of crime, such as a mayor's son being robbed, a prominent lawyer being mugged or a wealthy couple being bound and robbed. Complaints about coverage of the latter case in the senator's district (in which The Sun foolishly used a map) helped spark her interest in this matter.

Finally, I'm for The Sun and The Evening Sun voluntarily using fewer names, especially when criminals are at large. In late 1991, we at The Evening Sun stopped using almost all victims' names in the Police Blotter. Fewer victims' names are appearing now. While sometimes people need to know more, they often want to know just the age, sex, location, time, suspect description, basic details.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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