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Bob Dunning

Bob Dunning: Trial coverage is about justice, not the bottom line

By From page A2 | February 05, 2014

Several times in the past year I’ve used this space to argue that all court proceedings in the case of accused double-murderer Daniel Marsh should be completely open, that nothing should take place out of public view and attention.

Clearly, the details of this case are incredibly disturbing, whether or not Daniel Marsh turns out to be the one who so viciously and wantonly took the lives of Oliver “Chip” Northup and his wife Claudia Maupin last April.

While news organizations pretty much unanimously agree that all proceedings should be open, I regularly hear from people in the community who feel otherwise.

Some cite the defendant’s young age (16 now, 15 at the time of the murders), while others claim we are guilty of “sensationalism” in a self-serving attempt to sell newspapers.

Yes, we are in the business of selling newspapers, but trust me, a murder trial — no matter how sensational — is not likely to change your bottom line. Circulation is built over a long period of time by giving your readers a product they know and trust.

Part of that, no doubt, is covering this high-profile case in depth, which is why The Enterprise has assigned the best of the best, reporter Lauren Keene, to cover this story.

In an editorial last Sunday, The Enterprise noted that “Marsh’s attorney, Rob Johnson, filed a motion to exclude the teenager’s alleged confession to police, and he wants the hearing on that motion closed. The defense asserts that the publicity surrounding the case compromises Marsh’s right to a fair trial. Not only does he want the suppression hearing closed, he is demanding that the transcript of the hearing be sealed and a gag order imposed on participants.”

Johnson is, of course, only doing his job, which is to defend his client to the utmost of his ability. But his motion to suppress should be denied.
Some say it’s unnecessary for the public to know the specific and brutal details of this horrific crime. In fact, I’m looking at an email from a kind woman named Ann, who attempts to make that very case.

“I’m not sure what purpose providing those details serves for the general public, other than to inflame emotions, scare the wits out of some, and pander to the prurient interests of others.”

Ann is right in that the details of this case have indeed inflamed emotions in some, scared the wits out of others and possibly appealed to the prurient interests of still others.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the details had been kept from the public from the time of the arrest through myriad motions and hearings, and finally through a trial. All of it closed out of deference to the defendant’s age and his right to a fair trial.
So even if he is convicted, again behind closed doors, all we will know is that two Davisites died in some sort of a home invasion and presumably someone will serve time for this offense.

People can speculate as to whether the victims in this case were shot or stabbed or strangled or perhaps simply had a fatal heart attack upon encountering an intruder in the middle of the night. Or maybe someone slipped and hit their head.

No, contrary to the sincere and heartfelt opinions of Ann and many like her in our community, the public does have a need to know what actually and specifically happened that night, as painful and disturbing as that information might be.

Until and unless we know the details of the case, it will be impossible to know if justice has been served. And since the court is acting exclusively in the name of the people, the people need to know what is happening in that courtroom. Otherwise, how can we assess a jury’s verdict of guilty or not guilty if we’ve been kept in the dark throughout the entire process?

My friend Ann notes that “Nowhere do you mention that you are talking about the trial of a child who is being tried as an adult.”

Quite the contrary. I think the defendant’s age has been mentioned in virtually every news report and analysis of this case from day one.

Adds Ann: “The young defendant should be treated according to his age — as a child accused of a horrific crime, but still, a child.”

While I recognize that our system of justice does in most cases take into account the age of the perpetrator — or in this case, alleged perpetrator — there are some crimes so threatening to public safety that the age of the perpetrator becomes a secondary consideration at best. This is precisely such a crime.

The first and foremost goal of the criminal justice system is the protection of society. After that we can talk about “rehabilitation” of the criminal, but even then, the primary reason we hope to rehabilitate an offender is still the protection of society. Put simply, we rehabilitate in the hope the criminal doesn’t offend again.

Without commenting on the guilt or innocence of this specific defendant, I don’t care if the person who committed these murders was 15 or 50 or 150, he (or she) should never again be walking among us.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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