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Column: Crime and punishment – newspaper style

This newspaper puts too much emphasis on reporting local crime.

Or not enough.

Or not the right kind.

At not the right time.

Just about everyone has an opinion about the job we do in reporting crime and punishment in this community.

And we welcome their willingness to speak out on the subject.

IN THE FOUR YEARS this column has been published, the subject of crime has been a frequent topic.

A search of this newspaper's electronic library shows the word “crime” appeared in 44 different columns among more than 200 that the editor has written.

Those columns usually were written in response to readers' questions, concerns or criticism about how the newspaper reported on crime.

Of course, some of that feedback came from readers who have grown weary of reading about the pre-trial exploits of murder defendant Nicholas Sheley of Sterling, who was charged with killing eight people, five of them in Whiteside County, over a few days in the summer of 2008.

More than 4 years after the homicide spree, Sheley stands convicted of only one murder – in Knox County. The defense continues to frustrate justice by seeking further delays in his next trial, scheduled for Whiteside County.

Each story we publish about the case is a reminder of the horrific acts involved.

But even if they are weary of the coverage, readers need to know how the criminal justice system – their government – is proceeding in State v. Sheley.

And it's our job to report that.

COMMENTS ABOUT crime coverage often are complaints that the newspaper puts too much emphasis on lawless behavior and puts too many crime-related stories on Page 1.

If you read last Saturday's edition, you might have seen a different complaint – that the newspaper put a particular crime story on Page 4A of the Aug. 11 edition.

That opinion was voiced in a guest column by Gary Spencer, state's attorney for Whiteside County. He argued that the newspaper should have used Page 1 to report on an 85-year prison sentence for a repeat felon convicted of attempted murder, being an armed habitual criminal, and three lesser charges.

Spencer wrote that he believed the judge wanted to send a message with such a severe punishment: “that our community will not tolerate this Chicago-style lawlessness.”

“The decision by the [newspaper] to place this very important story on Page A4 of the Saturday paper did little to assist the court system in sending the message that violence of this nature will not be tolerated in Whiteside County,” Spencer wrote.

He might be right.

CHOOSING STORIES for Page 1 is an inexact process.

What is important? What is interesting? And to whom?

Our Page 1 on that Aug. 11 had four stories: the hiring of a new financial director in Dixon in the wake of the $53 million city hall scandal; the “Knock and Talk” campaign of the Sterling Police Department to discourage neighborhood crime; the dwindling stock at local food pantries this summer; and the background on how Dixon landed the Mumford & Sons concert that brought 15,000 people to town last weekend.

All are important to the community – or, at least, to different people in the community.

But so is punishment that is intended to deter crime. Spencer called the 85-year term “effectively a life sentence for this 28-year-old defendant ... who was proved to have shot three people on two separate occasions” in recent years.

On the other hand, you could argue that nobody died when a guy shot an acquaintance in the leg during a quarrel over a woman. Had it been a first offense, it would have been ripe for a plea bargain for aggravated assault.

But it wasn't a first offense, and the offender was slapped with a deservedly long prison sentence.

Maybe the story should have been on Page 1.

ANOTHER COMPLAINT we hear on occasion involves our Monday morning roundup of criminal and civil cases scheduled for court that week – Court Call, we call it.

Many of those items, about scheduled court hearings, include a photo of the person involved. Marc sent an email to say that might not be fair – especially to those who are not convicted.

“You have plastered their faces and charges so many times that they are going to be guilty on the street anyway,” he wrote. “... I would think that’s some kind of defamation of character by you.

“I understand your reporting the news, but nothing has changed in these articles. Always waiting on courts. If they are guilty so be it, not for me to decide. But you can make it difficult for them in a small town when potentially looking for a job, or place of residence.

“So are you going to report that they are innocent as many times as you make them look guilty? If not shame on you.”

WHETHER THEY “look guilty” is not for us to decide.

But if they are acquitted, we will certainly report that. And if the arrest was placed on Page 1, the acquittal deserves Page 1, too.

Will we report an acquittal “as many times” as we report other developments in the case – the arrest, the entering of a plea, the pre-trial hearings, the trial, and the verdict?

A criminal case can take years to come to a legal conclusion, so the newspaper might publish dozens of reports on the progress of prosecution.

A conviction will lead to another story on the sentencing, and appeals can drag out the case for a few more years.

But an acquittal almost always ends the story. It's over.

So, too, is the need to continue reporting it.

Crime and punishment – newspaper style shaw-push-component-1