Archive for February 22nd, 2012

22
Feb
12

without merit

The Pennsylvania Superior Court today issued a ruling refusing to grant access to the public and media in Jordan Brown’s upcoming juvenile trial for the murder of Kenzie Houk and her unborn baby.

Lawrence County Judge John Hodge had ruled that Jordan’s juvenile proceedings should be closed to the public, and The Tribune-Review, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the New Castle News appealed his ruling in September.

The Superior Court ordered that Jordan’s trial be delayed in the meantime while the appeal was being considered, thereby overriding other statutes regarding the guarantee of timely trials for juveniles.

The newspapers argued before the Superior Court that  Jordan’s trial should be opened to the public because closing the proceedings should require a “compelling government interest” that was not present. The court’s opinion by Judge Jacqueline Shogun concluded that “denial of public access to the juvenile proceedings at hand serves an important government interest” because “under the facts of the case, there is no alternative short of closure of the juvenile court proceedings which will adequately serve the privacy interests of J.B.” The newspapers had argued that Jordan’s right to confidentiality (as guaranteed by statute) is a moot issue because, in the words of Ronald Barber, an attorney for The Tribune-Review, “That horse has left the barn.”

Bill Vidonic, a reporter for The Tribune-Review, invoked this same metaphor on the phone with me today and became angry when I reminded him that his paper was one of those responsible for having opened the barn door in the first place. When I asked Susan Smith, an editor at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette if her paper had any ethical standards about how crimes involving juvenile defendants are handled, she became flummoxed and refused to answer this or any more questions.

The ethical default in journalism is always to publish as much as you reliably know. But sometimes, especially in cases involving juvenile defendants or victims, journalism ethics dictate restraint and extreme caution. The ethical injunction in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “minimize harm.”

Jordan was 11 years old at the time he was wrongfully accused of the double homicide. He was charged as an adult by an unscrupulous district attorney and waived into adult court under an outrageous (and novel) legal theory that was ultimately overturned on appeal. Even though the newspapers can justify their public identification of Jordan on the basis of his having been initially charged as an adult, subsequent court proceedings have confirmed what any ethical journalist should have known from the start: Jordan was (and is) a juvenile.

The release of Jordan’s mug shot photograph to the media by a jail employee was unauthorized and, in fact, it was released in defiance of a direct order by the jail’s superintendent that the photo was to have been kept confidential to protect the privacy of a child. The newspapers splashed Jordan’s mug shot all over their front pages, sensationalized the crime, and uncritically reported everything the now-discredited Lawrence County PA district attorney John Bongivengo alleged about the crime—all of which has been disproved by analysis of the physical evidence by the state crime lab, a fact that has never been reported by the press.

“More than anything,” a top producer at ABC News told me, “it was the release and distribution of that photo that created the public perception of Jordan’s guilt.” These three newspapers were at the center of events that secured a lynch-mob conviction of Jordan in the court of public opinion and they have irreversibly damaged Jordan’s reputation.

And now, in today’s ruling the Superior Court justices wrote that the newspapers’ arguments for opening Jordan’s trial had “no merit,” and said that the Lawrence County Court “did not abuse its discretion in denying access to the juvenile proceedings.”

After this, will anything change in the way these newspapers report on Jordan’s case? I doubt it. Even in Vidonic’s story today about the Superior Court ruling, the background facts about the crime are reported in a way that seems to presume Jordan is guilty as charged. This is nothing new.

As early as November 2009, reporter Sadie Gurman of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette told me she had obtained copies of the protection orders Kenzie Houk had taken out against Adam Harvey. She knew then that Harvey had threatened to kill Kenzie and that Kenzie and Adam had been engaged in a bitter child support and paternity battle. And yet she did not report on the possibility that Jordan, a little boy without a motive or any history of violence or trouble with the law, might have been wrongfully accused by police.

As I have become aware of the crime lab findings and other crucial information, I’ve personally informed reporters from the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review (the New Castle News has never returned my calls) that the physical evidence suggests a handgun was the murder weapon, not a shotgun. I’ve written about that in this blog. Yet these newspapers have failed to report this information and, in fact, continue to keep reporting that a shotgun was the murder weapon.

What in the world has been going on all this time? Why are these newspapers facilitating this injustice?

As I have said before, it is my opinion that these papers don’t give a damn about the truth or any high-minded public interests; they want the court proceedings opened so the spectacle they created can continue. There’s money in spectacle and none in justice.

They have prolonged Jordan’s wrongful incarceration and have delayed Jordan’s opportunity to prove his innocence. Today when I informed Sandy Tolliver of the Tribune-Review that I had heard a decision had been made before today’s ruling that, if necessary, the newspapers would continue their appeal all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, she denied it saying, “We have not made that decision yet.”

Yet?

۞

Groove of the Day 

Listen to Charles Murray performing “I Read It in the Paper So It Must Be True”

 

(Postscript)

The New Castle News will not pursue an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to gain access to Jordan Brown’s juvenile proceedings. The News’ publisher, Lawrence Corvi, announced on Friday, February 24,  that the paper has decided not to appeal the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling. A story appearing online early Saturday morning said the other two newspapers will not pursue an appeal, either.

Visit this link for a more in-depth explanation of the papers’ decision:
http://www.ncnewsonline.com/topstories/x1875166191/New-Castle-News-won-t-appeal-Jordan-Brown-ruling.

Now the only open question remaining is, “When will they begin reporting the truth?”