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Should We Discuss the Details of Horrible Crimes?

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Marcos Breton has this column in the Sacramento Bee.

After 30 years as a journalist in California, I've come to believe that my industry can unintentionally distort the public's understanding of the death penalty.
But he doesn't mean the usual kind of media bias.

No, I'm referring to distortion by omission in many media accounts of death penalty cases. As journalists, we often won't describe the most gruesome details because they can violate the rules of decent public discourse.

We are mindful of subscribers reading the paper at their breakfast tables or online at their computers at work. So it's unlikely we're going to tell you the excruciating ways in which some people on California's death row tortured their victims. It's unlikely we're going to tell you exactly how they derived emotional or sexual satisfaction from playing god over defenseless children who begged for mercy before being killed.

Breton tells about the case of 8-year-old Michael Lyons, a case we have mentioned on this blog a few times.  He covered the case in 1996 as a reporter and more recently wrote an opinion column about it.

In the column, I was as graphic as I could possibly be because I wanted readers to understand what that case was about as they considered Proposition 34, a 2012 ballot measure to repeal the death penalty (it eventually was rejected by voters).

However, the most distressing details about the torture and killing of that young boy were removed from my column by my editors. I don't blame them for doing it. There are and should be rules of public discourse.

But what I know about the final hours of Michael Lyons' life has given me nightmares for 20 years. I never met Michael, don't know his family, but I've cried for that child more than once.

The San Francisco Chronicle, covering the penalty phase of the killer's trial for another murder, simply noted that the prosecutor "described the damage to [Michael] Lyons' body in graphic detail ...."

What was the graphic detail? Readers usually don't get that. Instead, they get toned-down descriptions and passive language.

The end result is that murders are described similarly in media accounts when, in fact, they are not all similar. They are all different based on the details. And the details that we don't provide often are the ones that matter the most in cases when prosecutors seek the death penalty.
So there is the dilemma.  On one hand you don't want to offend people, but on the other it is your job to inform them, and failure to describe just what makes these cases the worst of the worst fails the mission.

We at CJLF grapple with the same question writing the newsletter and writing this blog.  (I don't worry about it writing briefs.  Judges should be made of sterner stuff.)  We hope we get the balance right.

Breton discusses more about the death penalty before reaching this conclusion:

You have to sit in a courtroom and listen to the evidence in these crimes - and to witness the anguish of family members of victims - to truly understand why the death penalty can be an appropriate punishment for the worst criminals among us.
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I would never presume to tell you how to vote, but I am voting no on Proposition 62 and yes on Proposition 66. There are 19 men on death row whose legal appeals have all been exhausted. The families of their victims deserve justice. And some punishments do fit the crime.

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