Death penalty stories prompt sharp reactions

December 11, 2005|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

On Nov. 29, The Sun published a prominent front-page story about Cardinal William H. Keeler's visit to convicted killer Wesley Eugene Baker, and the cardinal's subsequent appeal to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to stop Baker's scheduled execution.

The article prompted two questions from reader Dennis Foster: "After seeing this big play on the front page, I'd like to know where The Sun played the stories about the murder of the woman who Baker was convicted of killing? And why does the newspaper give so much attention to the killer and opponents of the death penalty and not report on the victims and their families?"

In answer to the first question: The Sun had three front-page stories in June 1991 about the killing of Jane Tyson. The 49-year-old grandmother had been shot in the head and robbed in front of her grandchildren outside a Baltimore County mall.

Mr. Foster's second question was echoed by other readers. They wondered if The Sun's significant coverage of this case - which included six front-page articles before Baker was executed at 9:18 p.m. Monday - was in effect advocating the anti-death-penalty cause.

In my view, the number and the play of articles during the past two weeks show that The Sun was advocating the importance of the Baker case and the death-penalty debate. Although a number of the articles inevitably reported on the efforts to overturn Baker's execution, the news pages did not purposely take one side over the other.

Examining the content and presentation of some of these articles and photos can provide insight into how The Sun handled such an emotional subject and how readers reacted.

Commenting on the Cardinal Keeler article, reader Vickie Curtis said: "What happened to the separation of church and state? We have laws in place to serve and protect citizens. The cardinal shouldn't go to prison cells and try to grandstand the issue by using his power."

No matter one's opinion on church and state, a visit from the archbishop of Baltimore to a death-row inmate, and his plea for mercy, is major news. The Sun's placement of the story at the top of its front page made perfect sense.

A Dec. 2 article - "Looking to past to avert execution: Defense says rape of Baker's mother should be mitigating factor in sentence"- examined the inmate's troubled upbringing. Using interviews with Baker's mother and information from court documents, The Sun's Jennifer McMenamin reported on how race, geography and his abusive and chaotic childhood in East Baltimore shaped Baker's life.

For some readers, the story and its front-page treatment provided sociological excuses for Baker's criminal behavior.

M. Crummitt said: "I don't aim to sound heartless ... but we are all taught the difference between right and wrong. Since when does a criminal have more rights than his victim, even if his life is filled with painful experiences?"

A Dec. 3 front-page article about Jane Tyson - "Wife, mother, teacher, victim" - was an essential component in The Sun's reporting on this issue. Written by Laura Barnhardt, it thoroughly examined the continuing effects of the murder of Mrs. Tyson on family and friends.

From reader Beth Pearsall: "Thank you. Finally, an article speaking about our friend Jane. So much space has been given to Wesley Baker that we feared Jane would be forgotten."

Marshall Cowan said: "Thank you for the excellent story. You never hear the victim's story from the perspective of the family left behind. ... Like your story said, Jane got no chance to appeal her death sentence."

Gregory Kane's column in the Dec. 3 edition took issue with claims by death-penalty opponents that Maryland's death penalty is racist because of the disproportionate number of blacks on death row. Kane argued that Baker's crime, not his race, led to his execution.

"Your column hit the proverbial `nail on the head,'" said Harold Andrews. "When people start owning up to their responsibilities and actions, we will have then crossed one large hurdle."

Last Sunday's front-page article, "Death penalty foes urge review of 2003 study," focused on efforts to draw more attention to a 2003 University of Maryland report that the death penalty is more likely to be applied when the defendant is black and the victim is white.

Several readers, while acknowledging that the article was well reported and written, found it redundant given the previous stories The Sun had published.

This article was accompanied by a large photo of a group carrying signs to protest Maryland's death penalty. The signs, which called the death penalty "proven arbitrary" and "proven racist," do not mention Baker but name his brother, Vernon Lee Evans Jr., who is also on death row. In my view, the picture was too partisan to be placed in the lead position on the Sunday front page.

Tuesday's front-page presentation of Baker's execution also had a photo of protesters carrying signs with the same message, but it was a breaking-news picture and was placed next to another news photo of state prison officials announcing that the execution had taken place.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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