Should we note a victim’s criminal record?

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 10:03 AM

One day last week, a 37-year-old Durham man was gunned down at midday on North Hyde Park Avenue in East Durham.

We all know we see that scene, or similar ones, played out too often in Durham – a young man or woman dead by gun violence, a life cut way too short.  As part of our coverage of life in Durham – the good, the bad and occasionally the ugly – we recounted this one the next day.

It was, as a neighbor told our police reporter, longtime Durham resident and veteran journalist Keith Upchurch, “a very senseless shooting” adding “any shooting is senseless, but that’s a very senseless one.”

I mention Upchurch’s experience (he’s worked here since 1973) and long-time residence to point out he is, like most of us here at the paper, deeply attached to this community. He’s been in this business long enough to be a straightforward and diligent reporter.

And that diligence led him to check the background of Jermaine Andre McDonald, the victim of Tuesday’s shooting.

The fourth paragraph of his front-page story noted:

“McDonald’s criminal history dates to 1996, and includes a 2007 conviction in Durham County for robbery with a dangerous weapon, for which he was imprisoned until last year.”

That paragraph touched a nerve with at least some people.

One caller, Upchurch relayed, said he knew McDonald and “complained bitterly about including his criminal past, saying that it implied that he deserved to be murdered.”

It’s not an unusual complaint with such stories.  Another caller objected recently to a story in which we mentioned the victim’s criminal history. “Her main point was that the story victimized the slain man’s family and friends a second time, adding pain to an already painful situation,” Upchurch recalled for me.

Those are understandable concerns.  We realize anytime we report, as we too often must do, on violent deaths, premature deaths, senseless deaths – the sort that make news – we are intruding on the families of victims at an agonizing time.

But I think it is the right thing to do.

Upchurch and I talked after Wednesday’s story about our reasoning, and when we should include those details.  It’s clear to me we can’t write hard-and-fast guidelines. But generally, a handful of misdemeanor charges isn’t worth noting, and a non-violent death seldom raises questions about the victim’s past.

But serious felonies seem relevant.  It doesn’t mean as our Wednesday-morning caller asserted, that we were implying the victim deserved to be killed – no one, ever, does, not even by the state in my view. But it does suggest a potential context for the death, especially since police told Upchurch that it did not appear to be a random act.

Another caller last week was an impassioned advocate for families touched by the death of a relative, whose work on behalf of giving people with criminal convictions a second or third chance I admire.

Every human being is complex. I know that Jermaine McDonald was a friend, a confidante, a significant and loved figure in the lives of someone, probably many.

Is it tragic that his life’s outcome may have been shaped not just by that, but by his earlier brushes with the law?

Yes. But should we obscure that unfortunate history?

I don’t think so.

Let me know what you think.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.