Editors weigh risks when identifying witnesses

February 06, 2005|By Paul Moore

WHEN homegrown NBA star Carmelo Anthony briefly appeared in a locally produced DVD called Stop Snitching last year, Baltimore's longtime problem with the intimidation of witnesses received national attention. The rap-style documentary, which looked like outtakes from an episode of The Wire, delivered a chilling message: Witnesses to crime who cooperate with police and testify in court face violent retaliation.

Articles in The Sun focused largely on Anthony - who has denied any culpability and has disavowed the DVD's message - and on the dramatization of what Baltimore prosecutors say permeates almost all of its murder and nonfatal shooting cases.

Since the articles ran in early December, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has reintroduced witness-intimidation legislation in the General Assembly (similar legislation died in a House committee last year) and new instances of intimidation have given the issue even more visibility.

On Jan. 25, several Baltimore residents told a Senate hearing that the threats are "like a nightmare" and urged state lawmakers to support bills that would significantly increase the penalties for witness intimidation. One speaker, who called herself only "Mrs. T" because of concern for her family's safety, agreed to speak and participate in a news conference because she felt so strongly about the issue.

The Sun's Jan. 26 article respected the "Mrs. T" alias but also reported the specifics of her testimony and provided background information about her case, including the name of an 11-year-old girl who testified at a murder trial. (This information was originally published in The Sun in July). A photo that partially obscured the face of "Mrs. T" accompanied the article.

In this and other recent cases, readers have criticized The Sun for naming witnesses who have been threatened.

"I think the newspaper is putting this woman and her family at risk," said one reader. "Why would you provide the details of this situation?" Another reader, Pat Reed, said: "I was disturbed that the child's name was used in the article."

A reader of the Feb. 1 article "Stop-`snitching' graffiti mar a wall of 1st Mariner Arena" said: "I'd like the newspaper to err on the side of being conservative in these situations. When you provide too much detail, you run the risk of exacerbating an already serious problem."

Sun editors do weigh the potential for harm carefully before naming names and sometimes decide not to. Either way, such decisions can be controversial.

When deciding whether to identify individuals, Sun editors ask themselves these questions:

Has the witness testified in open court? In other words, does the defendant already know who the witness is?

Is the witness in protective custody?

Is the defendant in jail?

How widely known is the witness within his or her community?

How public has the intimidation been?

City Editor Howard Libit uses the firebombing of the house of a Harwood community activist, first reported in The Sun on Jan. 17, to illustrate the decisions editors face.

"Edna McAbier was well-known - she was president of the community association - and everyone who lives in Harwood knows who she is," Libit said. But because of concerns for her safety, the newspaper did not print her name in the initial news articles. The Sun printed her name only after it was released as part of court documents in the case.

At that point "not printing her name wouldn't do anything in terms of protecting her privacy from people who threatened her," Libit said.

Before using the name of a witness, reporter Julie Bykowicz always checks to see whether The Sun has printed it before and assesses how public the witness has become since the article was published. Bykowicz, who has written a number of articles about witness intimidation, never identifies the home address or the neighborhood of the witness.

Referring to the "Mrs. T" case, Bykowicz said: "I didn't feel that reprinting something we've already published would be jeopardizing anyone's safety. I gave no details as to where the girl lives or where `Mrs. T' lives and intentionally kept their relationship vague."

Still, for readers who were unaware that the names were part of the public record and had been published already, The Sun could seem as if it were playing fast and loose with sensitive information.

In the "Stop-`snitching' graffiti" article, where the graffiti identified Tyrone Knox as the witness, Bykowicz reported that he was in city jail. "I thought readers might take some comfort in knowing that Knox was already under the watchful eye of authorities," she said.

The article also contained this paragraph: "Knox has been identified in public documents as a witness since June, and his name was displayed on the arena wall for at least six hours yesterday." This provided the context for readers to better understand the scope of the case.

The real issue is not The Sun's identifications. It is that witnesses are being intimidated because people already know their identities.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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