Commentary

Saunders: When is a victim's criminal past relevant?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2012 

Let’s see now. Took two Baby Ruths from King’s Grocery’s counter on my way to school one morning when Mrs. Carrie Mae King wasn’t looking.

Got a five-finger discount on a baseball from Wood’s Five and Ten Cent Store, although a guilty conscience made me come all the way back and return it after a clean getaway.

Oh, hi. Y’all caught me in the middle of cataloguing my crimes and sins to save local TV stations the hassle of having to look them up in the event something bad happens to me.

I’m up to age 9, but there’s no telling how far back some overzealous journalist will go to — do what? Throw dirt on the deceased even before the gravedigger has a chance to?

Last week, a 28-year-old Henderson man named Barry Wilkerson was shot and killed. Before his mama had a chance to pick out a suit and tie in which to bury him, a local TV station was reporting on his criminal past, even, for dramatic effect, slowly scanning the camera across the arrest record.

Turns out the dude was arrested in 2008 and received probation in 2009 on charges of possession with intent to sell a schedule VI drug. Lawyers I talked to say that’s marijuana..

Sullying the dead unnecessarily is not a new phenomenon, but it still enrages — even when the newspaper does it. Fifteen years ago in Fayetteville, a man and woman were shot down like rabid dogs — turns out by a Nazi-sympathizing skinhead soldier trying to earn a spider web tattoo — as they, already mortally wounded, vainly crawled away. Before their blood had seeped into the dirt road on which they were slain, though, another local reporter was informing us that the dead man had once been arrested for some minor charge that had nothing at all to do with any damned thing.

‘Certainly relevant’

I asked Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, about the ethics of that. “There’s a bias in journalism that says ‘when in doubt, get it out,’” he said. “That’s a hard reflex to overcome.”

Nor, Meyer said, is it one we should want to overcome. “When a violent act occurs, you want to get the relevant facts out as quickly as possible” lest “the rumor mill” put out incorrect information. The inclusion in the report of Wilkerson’s priors, he said, “is certainly relevant.”

Police have not yet listed a motive for Wilkerson’s death and, who knows, maybe his past will indeed have some bearing on his death. He will, however, still be dead when police discover such a link. What was the harm in letting his family grieve a bit without having to answer for his past?

‘A good dude’

Vernon Miles was leaning against a red pickup truck on Nicholas Street, where Wilkerson lived with his mother, when I approached and asked if he knew Wilkerson. “You mean the boy who got killed?” he asked.

“Yeah, I knew him. I used to see him walking up and down the street with his mama,” Miles said. “He was a good dude. He didn’t never bother nobody.”

Professor Meyer wrote the book on journalism ethics — literally called “Ethical Journalism.” I still disagree, though, that everything in a person’s past is relevant. So does Wilkerson’s mama. She wasn’t at home when I knocked, but in the TV interview where his past conviction was reported, she said, “After he had his daughter, he was focused on being a family man. That was in the past. That was in the past.”

To paraphrase the great Southern writer William Faulkner, the past is never dead. Even when you are.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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