Reporters often turn to murder victims' criminal records when no other details about motive are available. Critics say this technique can mislead readers –and should be dropped from journalists' toolkits once and for all.
Young man slain on the street. Unknown assailant at large. Police not saying much.
It’s a scenario familiar to any urban police beat reporter. The lack of detail propels journalists who want to do a more complete job of reporting into a search for clues about what precipitated the crime. And often this leads them to the victim’s own rap sheet.
Example: Gregory Davenport, 27, was shot to death on the block where he lived in Baltimore's Harlem Park neighborhood on March 29. Few facts about the murder were provided by police, but court records helped fill out the gaps in Davenport's history for Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton, who covered the story.
Davenport “sports an extraordinary record of being charged with murder and attempted murder without a conviction,” Fenton discovered. “Since 2001, he was charged in such cases five different times, and in the past decade faced serious criminal charges a total of nine times. In each instance, the charges were dropped or he received a light sentence.”
In Baltimore, 91 percent of murder victims had criminal histories, a 2007 study by the police department found. So it would seem that Davenport's death was the culmination of a pattern of criminal behavior.
Lifestyle choices play a large part in victimization. Police chiefs from Baltimore to St. Louis often point to that fact after major violent crimes to try to quell concerns that their cities are unsafe—on the grounds that it is criminals, not ordinary law-abiding citizens, who are the primary victims. After a surge of homicides in St. Louis in 2004, then-Chief Joe Mokwa noted that few of the killings were random.
“We know that many victims have illicit drugs in their systems, and we know that the majority of victims have had previous encounters with the criminal justice system,” he said.
It wasn't clear that Davenport's past criminal career contributed to his death, and police weren’t discussing a motive. Nevertheless, Fenton believed that Davenport's criminal history was relevant: the possibility that the murder was in retribution for a previous crime was too great to ignore.
“Tell Ms. Jones down the block that the local drug dealer got killed and she’s still unnerved by the crime, but at least she knows what it was about,” he told me and a handful of crime reporters in a discussion over email. (Everyone involved gave me permission to write about the discussion for The Crime Report.)
“Tell her that a 20-year-old man was shot, and she may be more fearful for her own safety, and that of her own kids, than she need be.”
He added: “I suppose my fear, frankly, is that while publishing the record may unfairly create the perception that the victim’s criminal conduct led to his demise, holding back has the exact opposite effect: that is, people are left with no idea (about) what is happening in their neighborhood.”
Fenton filed a blog item on the Sun website that put the spotlight on Davenport's rap sheet.
But if he could do it over again, he’d reconsider.
Why? Because Davenport’s friends and family blasted him in online reader comments.
“A person’s criminal record should not dictate their death,” wrote commenter Sheneir on April 1. “His previous convictions (are) nobody’s business…he was never convicted of any of the cases presented before him. So many people get away with things in life. Obviously, like the article says, they didn’t have enough evidence against him, to prosecute him. I knew this guy, and he was a great guy.”
Fenton tried to justify what he did on his blog. “It’s important to stress that Davenport was never convicted of the violent charges he faced,” he wrote. “But in trying to understand why he was killed, the notion that five different families, friends, and associates all were told by police and prosecutors that he was a killer raises the possibility that the crime was retribution.”
Reader Samantha wrote: “Well I knew Mr. Davenport and he had a good heart regardless of his criminal ‘charges’…that's what they were NOT convictions.”
Fenton responded: “It was laying out an extraordinary record that I hadn’t known about until his death. It's a unique record—whether he was set up, maliciously prosecuted, or got away with murder.
But there were just as many commenters who said, in essence, that what comes around goes around.
“The lawyer should be laying beside him, he’s as much to blame as Davenport,” wrote commenter uncleollie41. “And the police for not having enough evidence to convict him of a crime. He got his justice.”
Fenton turned to other crime reporters who belong to a listserv run by the national Criminal Justice Journalists organization and asked: What would you do?
The question led to a healthy discussion that started publicly on the listserv, continued privately, and reverberated in my newsroom at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Crime Reporters Weigh In
Fenton heard from a variety of crime reporters.
I wrote: “If there’s no causation apparent, why mention it? You’re making a connection for readers that you don’t have enough information to make.”
Brian Haas at The Tennessean in Nashville wrote:
“One way I try to look at it is like this: This may be the last thing written about this person ever. Is their criminal history relevant? Does it help the reader understand why they were killed? And does it illuminate what is going on in the community? Or would it cause needless pain for the victim’s family?”
“I think the maxim ‘minimize harm’ applies in those cases,” Haas continued. “If there isn’t a connection between the criminal record and their murder (even a loose connection of, say, poor decision making), I don’t see any compelling reason to report that record.”
Kim Minugh of the Sacramento Bee wrote:
“I frequently use criminal histories when writing about victims of violent crimes. Obviously, a court record does not define a person, but it can offer a glimpse into their life, their habits, their problems. A series of drug arrests in a person’s past might not explain why he was killed, but it could give some context and offer an idea of the kind of life that person was living. I don’t think that’s blaming, I think that’s being truthful.”
She also advocated tracking down other sources, such as a victim’s relatives or friends.
“Such due diligence, in my book, shows that you are not blindly accepting that a person’s criminal record defines them or explains their fate,” she added.
In the end Fenton decided that the critics were right.
“I think I’m going to stop mentioning the records unless there are major, recent convictions,” he wrote.
One thing is clear: There is a fine line between providing information that reporters consider useful for readers, and alienating or insulting them.
When is it appropriate to discuss a victim's criminal history? There doesn't appear to be any news industry standard.
But maybe there should be.
“We do that (in the) first week of stories and the victim is a character in the story,” said Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank. “And in those cases, the criminal history of the victim is less important. The stories where it becomes more important is where we do a whole profile of the victim, maybe a week before the court date, or on the anniversary.”
She continued: “I think it's relevant for a couple reasons. One, you are trying to give a complete picture; and two, you are offsetting that harmful information (about the suspect) with other information that is likely to give a fuller picture.”
McBride said journalists should push back against the idea that a crime victim’s own record is automatically part of the story.
“If you’re not getting full picture information” including positive aspects of the victim's life, she said, “then I think there is a much higher threshold for making a direct connection to the crime.”
Such dilemmas are faced by reporters virtually every day around the country. .
A Death in Cincinnati
On May 10 in Cincinnati, Santino Furr, 20, was fatally shot outside a convenience store while he was holding a 14-month-old child. He had been in court less than an hour earlier on charges of giving a police officer a false identity, and he had a criminal history that included charges for drug possession and heroin?a fact that two area TV news stations reported.
Furr worked part time at a Cincinnati restaurant, “Stuffed on Vine.” One of the restaurant's owners told me that Furr's friends were insulted by the coverage.
“It made it seem like less of a person than he was,” said the owner, who declined to be named. She claimed that Furr was trying to put his life together.
“That’s why we offered him the job here,” she said. “He was convicted of a felony (but) it's really hard out there. He'd come in every day and say, 'I'm really trying. I'm really trying, but I can't find anything out there.'”
I am not sure what the drug convictions had to do with Furr’s murder. He wasn’t dealing drugs when he was gunned down; he was holding a baby. Maybe his criminal lifestyle had something to do with his murder, and maybe it didn’t. To me, reading his rap sheet on the air is blaming the victim, and it sends your readers or viewers a signal that “this guy is not one of you.”
In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on May 5, Mahdi Elting, 26, was gunned down outside a tavern. The Poughkeepsie Journal covered the homicide the same day and then the arraignment the next day of three men accused in the shooting.
On Sunday, May 8, the newspaper came back with another story headlined, “Gun-slay victim Elting had extensive criminal past.”
Noting that “the motive for Elting’s homicide remains under investigation,” the newspaper reported “state records and Journal archives indicate he had an extensive criminal history.” According to the paper, he recently served three years in prison for a 2006 felony conviction for weapons possession.
But it wasn't clear how that criminal record fit in with Elting's murder.
Why build a Sunday story around it, two days after the homicide, when the suspects are in custody?
In Poughkeepsie, Journal City Editor Kevin Lenihan wasn't interested in talking about the story, saying, “We stand behind our reporting.”
The newspaper’s mention of Elting’s record stung the victim’s family, who believed the young man's past had no relevance to a senseless murder.
Elting's parents were “highly offended” by the Journal's examination of Elting's criminal history, according to the victim's first cousin, Lawrence Elting, also of Poughkeepsie.
“They felt like it was an injustice to their child,” Elting told The Crime Report.
Lawrence Elting, is himself connected with the news industry. He's an account executive for Thompson Reuters. But he believes the Journal was wrong. The technique of citing his cousin’s questionable past diminished the nature of the crime that was committed against him, Elting believes..
“I won’t sugar-coat it,” he said. “Mahdi saw his share of trouble. But what needed to be noted was that he was a very devoted child to his mother. He was loved by his aunts and uncles and respected by his peers who were not in a criminal lifestyle.”
He added: “A murder victim shouldn’t be dragged through the mud like that by the Poughkeepsie Journal.”
Fenton, the Baltimore reporter, deserves credit for starting this discussion. The reporters who participated agreed on two best practices: Do your due diligence, and minimize harm.
In a nuanced profile of a criminal case, when we have time and column inches to trace the victim’s and suspect’s life paths, of course a criminal history is fair game.
But I agree with Lawrence Elting. We are trained as journalists to stick to the facts. When we turn to a victim’s criminal record as the solitary reason to explain why he’s lying dead in the street, we risk being wrong.
And we risk insulting a whole bunch of readers: the victim’s family and friends.
Jeremy Kohler is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He welcomes comments from readers.