Florida papers faulted

By: David Noack

Sheriff unloads on press over sex-crime registry policies

The brutal murder of a Florida woman by a registered sex offender might have been averted if local newspapers had published the sex offender’s name and photo when he was released back into the community, argues a county sheriff.
Criticism of the newspapers, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Sun Herald in Port Charlotte, began in late July after police arrested 30-year-old Wayne Scott Harbison, who has a history of sex offenses, and charged him with the March murder of 19-year-old Sonya Lee Santiago, a Punta Gorda resident. The Herald-Tribune publishes a zoned edition in Charlotte County.
Charlotte County Sheriff Richard Worch, at a press conference following Harbison’s arrest, accused the news media of not making the public aware that people convicted of sex crimes are back on the street and living among them.
“I don’t know that Miss Santiago would still be alive if his picture had been published. But if the papers ran these photos, people would see them and remember their faces,” Worch is quoted as saying in the Herald-Tribune.
Top editors at the two daily newspapers quickly defended their policies of not publishing the names and photos of released sex offenders.
They stressed newspapers must be independent of law enforcement; questioned the accuracy of the sex-offender list; and refused to engage in a case of journalistic double jeopardy, which would lead to someone being punished twice for the same offense.
Herald-Tribune executive editor Janet Weaver says her paper grappled with the issue of whether or not to publish the names and photos of registered sex offenders.
“Our decision was made about a year ago when the state starting making the list available to local law enforcement, and they started sending the newspapers the list. ? We felt that it was putting us in the position of kind of acting like an extension of law enforcement,” says Weaver.
She says checking on the accuracy of the information would have pulled reporters from other work.
“We felt that unless we were willing to commit ? put reporters on it to track these folks’ movement[s] ? all we would be giving people is a snapshot of where these people were at that particular moment in time,” says Weaver.
Jim Gouvellis, executive editor of the Sun-Herald, says he believes that running the sex offender list borders on double jeopardy.
He says the sheriff and state law-enforcement officials are asking newspapers to engage in “Scarlet Letter” justice.
“We print tons of information that some would just as soon see remain private. The divorces, bankruptcies, DUI convictions, and child support delinquencies of everyday people. ? But we don’t compile lists of people who were convicted of crimes in the past because we think the world would be a safer place,” says Gouvellis.
Some states, such as Florida, had sexual-predator laws on the books before the widespread adoption of so-called “Megan’s Laws.” The laws are named after 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was killed in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender residing across the street from her Hamilton Township, N.J., home.
These laws generally create a classification system for people who commit sex crimes; a registration process, which requires offenders to tell local police when they’ve moved into a community; and a notification procedure, which leads authorities to inform residents that a registered sex offender has moved into their neighborhood.
In Florida, there are two sex crimes classifications: “sexual offender” (lesser offenses) and “sexual predator” (serious and repeated offenses).
Under Florida law, persons convicted of sex crimes must register with local law-enforcement officials when they move into a community. The law mandates that police agencies inform residents when a sexual predator, but not a sexual offender, moves into a neighborhood.
The U.S. Justice Department estimates there are some 250,000 people either wanted for sex offenses or who have a criminal record of such crimes. Forty-nine states already operate or are establishing their own registries, as mandated under a 1994 federal anti-crime law. The FBI also is establishing a central database of sexual offenders.
Liz Hirst, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), says the method of notifying residents is left up to local law enforcement.
She says she doesn’t know how many newspapers use the information.
Tom O’ Hara, managing editor of The Palm Beach Post, says his newspaper initially did run sex offender stories from the sheriff’s department, but the practice was stopped after a wrong photograph was provided.
“You hate to be perceived as an arm of law enforcement. You don’t like to be doing the bidding of the cops. ? We go to great lengths to avoid that perception,” says O’Hara.
Hirst contends that newspapers run corrections every day and admits there have been mistakes in the database.
“It’s not a good thing when there’s an error. It’s our job then to verify that it’s an error and move promptly to make that correction, as the press does every day in their stories,” says Hirst.
(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 7, 1999) [Caption]

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