The price of naming a juvenile defendant


November 23, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

HAVING AN emotionally disturbed teen-ager who will steal a bike or a cell phone for a drug dealer who just offered him a few bucks is one of the many daily difficulties D. W. faces.

I am using her initials to hide the identity of the family discussed in this column because it is not appropriate to identify them.

Thanks to the misbehavior of her 15-year-old son, Ms. W. also faces eviction from her three-bedroom apartment. The company that manages the building claims her son is destroying the tranquillity of the neighborhood.

As if her problems weren't bad enough, the Capital newspaper in Annapolis took advantage of a new state law that opens juvenile justice hearings to the public to report on the trial of the woman's son.

Not only did the newspaper name the woman's son, it included a paragraph, gleaned from testimony, that the teen-ager had been sexually abused by a relative at age 4. The news article also mentioned the possible eviction.

Ms. W. felt the repercussions immediately. In the middle of the following afternoon, her older son, 16, called. His voice had a tone of desperation.

"Mama, they had W. in the paper," he said. "And they said he was sexually abused."

Secret revealed

For years, the woman had hidden that secret from her children.

"I wanted to keep it hush-hush," she said. "I just thought it was better that way."

It has been more than a month since the Capital article appeared, but Ms. W. says her life has not settled down.

Sitting in her compact but tidy kitchen, with gospel music playing in the background, she says her family is being torn apart in the wake of the publicity.

Her 12-year-old daughter is living with her grandparents because she could not tolerate the humiliation at school.

Her 16-year-old, midway through his junior year in high school, also was the target of ridicule. He told his mother he is thinking of dropping out.

L "What right do they have to put me through this?" she asked.

Her question is pertinent, particularly now that juvenile hearings are public.

There is no law preventing news organizations from publishing the names of juvenile defendants. The Capital's editors plan to cover juvenile trials as aggressively as the paper covers the adult criminal justice system.

To have a real look at juvenile justice proceedings, defendants' names need to be in stories, says Tom Marquardt, the paper's managing editor.

In the past, the newspaper printed the names of juveniles accused of felonies such as murder. Since this story appeared, Mr. Marquardt said the paper's policy has changed slightly. It will name defendants in cases that would be tried as felonies in adult court and not to name kids who are first-time offenders facing misdemeanor charges, such as shoplifting.

(The Sun's policy continues to be to name juvenile defendants only when they are charged as adults.)

"Judging from the letters we have received, there is widespread support for naming these kids," Mr. Marquardt said.

Most of the public believes that juvenile delinquents are predators in the making, particularly since they hear that juvenile criminals are more violent than they have been in the past. People genuinely believe they must know which kids are bad actors. If they are informed, the theory goes, they will be able to avoid them and not allow their daughters to date them. Also, if the juvenile justice system "coddles" a youth who later commits a heinous crime, his record will be known.

They also believe that publicity about a juvenile offense can so thoroughly embarrass a youth that he or she will be deterred from committing another.

These are perfectly defensible arguments.

The problem, as seen in the case of Ms. W's son, is determing how much information discussed in juvenile proceedings the public needs to know.

Most juvenile delinquents are acting out and usually suffer from a host of emotional or psychological problems. Should this intensely personal information be broadcast through the community? Does it help us as readers and citizens to know the name of a youth who was sexually abused and then commits a crime?

Part-criminal, part-victim

Most newspapers don't publish the names of victims, particularly children. Does a troubled teen who commits a crime lose this normal right of privacy?

Mr. Marquardt said his paper upon reflection probably wouldn't have included the information about the sexual abuse of Mrs. W's son. He shifted some of the blame to the youth's attorney, who made no effort to have that portion of the hearing closed to the public.

"We are going to look at each case individually," he said. "In those cases where the information is not pertinent to the crime, ++ we will probably leave it out."

For Ms. W., though, the damage has been done.

"I'm trying to do the best I can to hold things together. If I fall apart, my kids will fall apart, too."

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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