Illuminating injustice

July 18, 2004|By Paul Moore

PUBLIC SERVICE journalism can be defined as aggressive, independent reporting that provides information that the public otherwise would never get. Its mission is to shine a light on public officials and institutions, to uncover wrongs and injustices and to make sure that officials perform their jobs in the public interest.

The Washington Post's reporting on the Watergate scandal, which uncovered the Nixon administration's illegal activity during and after the 1972 presidential election, is the ultimate example of public service journalism. In more local terms, The Sun's reporting in 1998 and 1999 on Maryland state Sen. Larry Young's consulting relationship with companies and institutions that had business before his Senate subcommittee ended in Mr. Young's expulsion from the Senate.

Last Sunday's front-page article by Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes in The Sun, "Inmate's final hours: Ifeanyi A. Iko died in custody, leaving questions about his treatment and suspicions of a cover-up," is an excellent example of public service journalism. The story chronicles the last days of Mr. Iko, who was originally convicted on a drug charge and later received 20 additional years for stabbing and biting a corrections officer.

The heart of the story is this: Mr. Iko had a violent confrontation with officers at Western Correctional Institution on April 30; by the end of the day he was dead. Mr. Iko was removed from the prison by ambulance and was handled as if he were still alive. Witness accounts and a 911 tape indicate that Mr. Iko was dead when he left the prison. The state medical examiner later ruled that Mr. Iko had died of asphyxiation and classified his death as a homicide.

Mr. Iko's family only learned of his death two weeks later, when a Sun reporter called to inquire about the circumstances of his death. Prison officials did not explain why they did not notify Mr. Iko's next of kin, and they have not provided any details of the April 30 incident, citing the continuing investigation.

This story may not have the far-ranging implications of Watergate or the Young case, but it does help define a newspaper's mission: Be skeptical of agencies or officials that do things in secret, and be equally skeptical and thorough in examining accusations of wrongdoing.

Why is this public service journalism? Mr. Sentementes said: "The public has a right to know what goes on in its own prisons. It is a requirement spelled out in the law that [prisoners] be treated decently and humanely." Mr. Garland added: "Inmates in state custody are really out of sight and out of mind for all but close family members and loved ones who care about them. In this context, the watchdog role served by the press is one of the few checks to prevent abuses."

Lori Gordon of Cumberland, an officer with the Maryland Division of Correction, sees it differently. "Why do you think officers at WCI have a strict reputation for a no-nonsense approach for dealing with inmates? Because they are worried for their lives. One slip-up could mean that a law-abiding citizen is dead," she wrote in an e-mail.

The reporters got copies of prison policies, regulations, training manuals and guidelines for corrections officers. The information that Mr. Iko was dead when he left the prison and that too much pepper spray had been used in the confrontation was confirmed by sources who were in a position to know the details, the reporters said. Officer Gordon said that guidelines do indeed exist, but that in handling an unruly inmate, corrections officers have to make split-second decisions.

The reporters still regret that no corrections officers or other prison officials would agree to on-the-record interviews. Mr. Garland said that officials are "worried about pending civil litigation and were perhaps understandably reluctant to give `their side of the story.'"

This story is far from over. The Sun reported July 14 that the Allegany County state's attorney's office will convene a grand jury to investigate Mr. Iko's death and to determine whether criminal charges should be brought.

Friends of Jason R. Bell, an inmate who was quoted extensively in last Sunday's article, believe it might prevent another such incident from happening.

"We hope that you will serve as an advocate for these people," said Eileen and Otis Hiler. "This sea of cruelty and sadness is so huge and our boats are so small. Hopefully, The Sun will lend weight to this cause."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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