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.
I’m not referring to political distortions rife in the state’s initiative process as voters consider two death penalty measures on the Nov. 8 ballot. (A yes on Proposition 62 would repeal the death penalty; a yes on Proposition 66 would keep it and speed the appeals process and the time it takes to execute inmates).
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.
Four years ago, I wrote a column about Michael Lyons, 8, of Yuba City, who was killed in 1996 by a convicted sex offender named Robert Boyd Rhoades. I was familiar with the Lyons case because I covered it as a reporter.
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.
Michael would be in his late 20s if he were alive today. But he’s not alive. His killer is, though. Rhoades is on death row at San Quentin. Lyons wasn’t Rhoades’ only victim. Twelve years before he killed Lyons, Rhoades murdered Julie Connell, 18, of San Leandro.
Rhoades abducted Connell as she went to a Hayward park. We know from newspaper accounts that Rhoades tied Connell up and raped her before slashing her throat.
During the 2007 murder trial – made possible by DNA evidence linking Rhoades to Connell – a San Francisco Chronicle account of the evidence presented to jurors adhered to standard media practices when covering acts of violence: “(The prosecutor) described the damage to Lyons’ body in graphic detail … just as the boy’s mother, Sandra Fuller, walked into court and took a seat in the gallery.”
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.
“These (cases) are the worst of the worst,” said McGregor Scott, a former Shasta County prosecutor and U.S. attorney.
They are also very rare. State statistics show that less than 2 percent of murders in California become death penalty cases.
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