Murder Ink

How Tucson's Daily Papers Re-Victimize Crime Victims.
By Vicki Hart

GAIL LELAND, DIRECTOR of Parents of Murdered Children and other Survivors of Homicide, complains that many of Tucson's daily print journalists covering crime simply make up stories based on their own biases.

Leland, mother of 1981 murder victim Richard Leland, says there seems to be no recourse against the local press--when she and others write to refute, protest, or correct what's said in the papers, the editors simply don't print their letters.

"How can the papers be so cruel and unsympathetic to crime victims?" she asks. "How can they not understand the trauma these people are going through? How can they re-victimize them again and again?"

Leland cites numerous examples--stories she says appear to have been sensationalized for the sole purpose of selling newspapers, stories that are incorrect, and stories that have left crime victims feeling victimized once again in a world that seems to have already turned against them:

"Blazak haunted by death row," Tucson Citizen, December 3, 1996. The story: Convicted murderer Michael Blazak's release from prison after spending 20 years on death row, how his conviction left "deep marks," his "pathetic life" behind bars, his "tremendous respect" for many people still on death row, and how his daughter thinks "Arizona owes him." How she wants him to spend the rest of his life "free," how he's looking for a job...

What wasn't in the article in any meaningful way, as R. Wayne Ford, the former deputy county attorney who prosecuted the case two decades ago, points out, is that Blazak was released on a technicality. Ford notes Blazak was convicted by a jury of 12 people who still believe he's guilty and who've written letters to say so. Ford says there's never been a legal determination that Blazak was innocent.

After 20 years the evidence in the case had disappeared and the County Attorney's Office elected not to retry him without it. Blazak pled no contest to a charge of second-degree murder, was sentenced to the time he'd served, and was thus released.

Barely mentioned in the Citizen story are Elden Baker and John Grimm, the two men Blazak was convicted of killing. Not even mentioned by name was Blazak's former brother-in-law, whom, Blazak admitted in another case, he'd tried to kill.

"Year later, baby's death still haunts," Tucson Citizen, October 26, 1996. This story, about the aftermath of 12-year-old Elizabeth Clark's trial in the death of 13-month-old John Tsakanikas, still has Leland and some other members of Parents of Murdered Children seething.

Asks Leland, "Why did they do a story on the anniversary of Elizabeth Clark's acquittal? Why not the anniversary of baby John Tsakanikas' death? Why are they re-victimizing the Tsakanikas family, who've had no choice but to try to get on with their lives? Why start the story with a quote from the defense attorney saying, 'I think the acquittal raised the question that if Elizabeth Clark is innocent, then what really happened to the baby?' And why wasn't all the terrible stuff The Weekly found out about Elizabeth Clark's family ("Death of Innocence," Tucson Weekly, October 26, 1995) reported in this follow-up?"

Leland says time and time again victims are subjected to stories in the media sensationalizing trials, sympathizing with prisoners and "trashing" victims. She cites:

• The 1996 media coverage of the 1995 murder of UA music professor Roy Johnson. The media played up allegations made by murder suspect Beau Greene that Johnson had made a pass at him, causing Greene's attack. Although Greene could offer no hard evidence, the papers printed the story anyway, and Johnson's family had to endure not only the murder of a beloved husband and father, but the smearing of his reputation. Oddly, the papers never reported the sex toys found in Greene's possession when he was captured, and thus passed up the chance to point out he is a sexual deviant.

• In the Gina Celaya case, the 15-year-old girl convicted of murdering Trinidad Lopez in December 1992, the Star was printing articles sympathetic to poor little Gina, even before the trial. Christina Sanchez, wife of the victim, wrote to the Star questioning the outpouring of editorial sympathy for the girl. She wondered how they could completely ignore the suffering of her husband and that of his family. Later the Lopez family was sickened to see the poetry of Gina Celaya printed in the Citizen. The family wrote in protest again.

• Same thing with Dan Bennett, shot six times and disabled in 1992 in a botched robbery attempt, by Andre Minnet and Christopher McCrimmin. The Bennetts were sickened by a July 1994, front-page story in the Citizen gushing about how talented and artistic Minnet is, and how a special advocate was helping him write a children's book in prison.

• Approaching the one-year anniversary of her husband Richard's 1993 murder, Cheryl Lance picked up the Star to read about how a church group had gone to the jail with cookies to sing carols with the prisoners, and how "low" the prisoners' spirits were. Her husband's murderer, John Johnson, was quoted in the article about how nice it was people cared. Lance wondered why no articles were done about how she spent her Christmas.

• Family and friends of 17-year-old Jake Northey, who was shot and killed in front of the house where he was baby-sitting his nephew on December 16, 1994, complain that every single newspaper story--in both the Star and the Citizen--on Jake's death had something incorrect in it. Though they wrote and called, corrections were never made--until the killer's sentence was incorrectly reported in the Star. Only then, they say, did the paper's editors issue a correction. Jake's family and friends canceled their subscriptions as a quiet protest.

• Robert Moody is the beast who killed Patricia Magda and Michelle Page Malone in 1993, then gleefully admitted it and claimed space aliens made him do it. The families of these two women were forced to endure the total sensationalizing of his trial, with headlines from the Tucson Citizen of "Defendant: aliens made me do it," and the Star's "Messiah ruled competent for murder trial."

• This past holiday season, stories in the Star and Citizen seemed to lament the canceling of Yule packages to Arizona prisoners, victims' survivors complain. The 25-pound boxes were costing the state $254,000 to inspect and distribute. Victims' families wonder if that money might be better spent on children whose parents were murdered.

Leland wonders if the local newspapers are simply unaware of the pain they cause with their insensitive reporting and headlines, or if the reporters and editors are pro-defendant.

Star columnist Tom Beal says he doesn't pretend to be a crusader for victims because such crusades can lead to the erosion of rights for the accused. He adds that he's consistently upheld the constitutional rights of the accused. Beal maintains victims should be an important part of the process, but says they have no special legal status.

Citizen reporter Stephanie Innes, who authored the Elizabeth Clark retrospective, says she feels badly the victims were upset by it, adding she tries to present both sides, and tries to be sensitive to victims as well.

She says she failed to report additional damning information about Elizabeth Clark because she knew little about that, and that a brief mention of it was edited out of her story. She says she was not in town when John Tsakanikas was killed, nor when Clark's trial was held.

Leland says reporters and editors need to be aware of trauma they can cause victims.

"Why the great sympathy for the criminals? Why are they not supportive of the laws that protect victims?" she asks.

Leland says she saw an ad in the Star encouraging schools to take part in the Newspapers in Education program, which asks business to foot the bill for daily newspapers in the classroom. "If they're going to step into the education of children, ethically they have a responsibility to present those kids with both sides of the issues, and not just push their biases and sensationalize crime," Leland says. "The papers have a responsibility in this community, too." TW

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