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HOW CRIMINAL CASES SHOULD BE COVERED IN THE MEDIA
by Local Yocal
URBANA- In a recent case against a U of I football staff member, crime reporter for The News-Gazette, Mary Schenk, may have finally gone too far.
Schenk went well beyond what is ordinary coverage after an arrest, which is the what, where, when, and who that the police and prosecutors provide The News-Gazette. Schenk wrote a subsequent front-page article that gave a detailed account of an eye-witness' testimony about the crime days after the arrest.
While we have grown accustomed to newspaper and television broadcasts reporting incidents mere hours after an arrest, it is understood that these reports represent what police and prosecutors want us to know. This form of "breaking news" gives the state an upper hand in the adversarial system, revealing to the entire jury pool what the evidence is against someone well before the arrested have a chance to answer for the charge.
Rarely do these reports offer circumstances in mitigation or provide any evidence the person may be entirely innocent.
Never does a day's publicity of arrests cover the entire caseload for the day, and some cases can go unnoticed entirely. Few have ever known, for example, that before the disappearance of Naomi Arnette in April of 2007; her convicted killer, estranged husband Robert Arnette, was given probation and released from custody for raping Naomi's then-seventeen year-old daughter a month before Naomi's disappearance by the same two attorneys that later convicted Arnette for Naomi's murder. (The case of the 2007 rape has been scrubbed off the circuit clerk's website.)
The criminal justice system operates in semi-secrecy and image-spinning without protecting the presumption of innocence; nor does it give a full account for its verdicts and sentences on the public's behalf. No one knows the real record of judges, of prosecutors, of defense attorneys; nor how innocence, dismissals, or guilty verdicts were rendered. No one knows exactly what were the considerations at sentencing. This information is left to a few reporters like Schenk who cherry pick the facts she is given (she does very little of her own research) to portray whatever narrative the state would like known or whatever Schenk "thinks" of the case. It is not unusual for Schenk to mock juries who render not-guilty verdicts in her summaries of trials.
The balance between what the public has a right to know, when it has a right to know it, the rights of the accused, and the public record of official government actions has been subject to create-it-as-you-go-tradition, developing technologies, privacy issues, and electoral politics. In the interest of protecting the presumption of innocence, while at the same time, provide full disclosure of the criminal justice system's actions, here below is a proposal toward responsible news coverage and public access of our tax dollars at work:
1) BEFORE all verdicts and trials: the state's attorney should release the names of defendants, the charges against them, and the bond, if any, set in the cases. The newspaper may only report this brief listing, and the listing must be daily and a complete list of all cases filed for that day. All arrests and charges filed are to be published. No more shall the evidence against a person be published before a trial in order to protect the presumption of innocence of the accused. Friends and families of the accused can still discover the whereabouts of a loved one. No booking photos can be published prior to a trial.
In extraordinary circumstances where the public's safety is at issue, say in situations where an armed fugitive is on the loose, serial killers are in the area, kidnappers or a rapist is still at-large; identifying features, prior booking photos, and video surveillance images can be published prior to the suspect's arrest as a means to help apprehend the suspect.
Included in the listing, the state's attorney will publish in the newspaper the names of people who have had their cases dismissed at the state's attorney's discretion. All arrests will then be accounted for. As it stands now, police haul about 8,400 people to jail per year, but only about 4000 cases are prosecuted.
Eliminating the "trials before trials" currently done in the media removes about one-third of a daily newspaper's contents and about 5 minutes of the television news broadcast. The presumption of innocence should take precedence over a commercial media's need to kill some clock, fill some space. The Daily Illini newspaper quit publishing the names and addresses of the arrested in the late 90's out of consideration for the presumption of innocence. Radio broadcasts can decide whether they want to read the listings for the day, but obviously, that might be boring fare.
These daily listings should also be published on the county government's website as part of the official record.
Defendants should be allowed to receive copies of the police reports against them as a means to assist in their defense and confront the evidence against them. Whoever the defendant names to receive copies of the police reports may obtain them as well. If the state has a reasonable belief the safety of a hostile witness may be compromised by the release of this information to a defendant; the names and contact information of the witnesses may be redacted before release to the defendant.
If the defendant or his family choose to contact media before the defendant's trial, media may then publish the contents of a case before a trial. Prosecutors and the police would still be prohibited from releasing evidence of guilt or offering rebuttal opinions to the media prior to the trial.
Witnesses may voluntarily contact the media before a trial and thereby publish their accounts, and then the normal procedures of vetting potential jurors would be required. If a prosecutor or member of law enforcement is caught prompting a witness to approach the media before a trial, then charges of official misconduct should be levied against the offender.
It's still possible we would have the narrative accounts of high profile cases in the media before a trial, but no longer should they be authored by prosecutors and police departments.
2) DURING pre-trial hearings, status hearings, plea bargain hearings, all trials, petition to revoke hearings, and sentencing hearings- With the traditional exceptions of sex crime victims, juveniles, and identities of jurors- all court proceedings should be public, in the media, and an additional step of 7 new government cable-TV channels created for daily "C-Span-type" coverage of each courtroom at the County Courthouse with an evening/all morning re-broadcast of the day's coverage. The county should maintain a separate website that would archive trials, and defendants who wish to appeal a verdict should have a reasonable time frame by which to obtain DVD copies of every proceeding in their case.
3) AFTER a verdict- All police reports, contents of discovery (with restrictions regarding children and victims of extreme violence), video recordings, and transcripts should be made available to the public and media.
The circuit clerk should be made to publish an annual report on the judiciary where each circuit judge's decisions are given an annual summary for voter inspection. The amount of bonds and what type of crimes should be recorded. The defendant's race, age, gender, the crime charged against each defendant, and the sentence handed down on each defendant should be recorded for each corresponding judge. The number of trials a judge presided over and the number of objections they sustained or overruled for which side should be recorded.
Assistant state prosecutors and assistant public defenders should have a similar annual record produced as well.
While there are many tweaks and precautions needed for such a system, the idea is to balance protection of civil rights while providing full accountability of government actions. It would cost money, require more staff, but all is entirely possible in a city with a super computer and big broadband. Transparency and fairness is the best medicine toward justice and democracy. It would be worth the investment.