Harlan County Round-up: Reflections On Crime Coverage

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Generally, I don’t like to share “war stories” from the past about crime stories I’ve covered.

Instead, I prefer to write more positive and uplifting stories because after everything I’ve seen, maybe it is best for our readers to see stories about folks’ better natures.

However, the case of Kayla Massingale’s death makes me think back, reflect on a lifetime of work covering courts and cops.

Journalists have to write about crime because it is important for the public to know what happened and hold criminals as much as the justice system accountable for how each case is handled. And the victim’s family and certainly the community need an explanation as much as they need closure.

Many times, I’ve seen stories go off the rails, possibly jeopardizing the investigation or the trial, because some halfwit television journalist was consumed more by ego than by justice or care for the victim’s family. Sometimes the scars left behind by the misguided media on the community can fester for years.

That’s why it is important to write these stories in a way that serves not only justice for the victims and their families, but the public interest in knowing the law applies equally to everyone.

When I began my career long ago, I wrote about courts and cops news because many reporters then as now tend to shy away from blood and gore. For the most part, seeing dead bodies after a car accident or studying a detailed autopsy report never really bothered me because I have a science and legal background as a journalist rather than one spent reading romance novels or watching CSI.

As I write this column, images of past stories come to my mind’s eye, particularly cold cases. Editors would periodically ask for these type of stories not only to update the reader as to the status of the investigation, but to keep the case alive in hopes that somebody might come forward with new information. And that has happened too after I’ve interviewed family and perhaps witnesses who may reveal something that may have fallen through the cracks during the initial investigation.

I’ve written about arson with children dying in an horrific house fire, psychopathic serial killers, misdirected mafia violence, finding an unidentified homeless body in the woods, as well as how innocent and not-so-innocent people have been murdered.

I’ve talked to police, prosecutors, detectives, defense attorneys and interviewed one of the world’s leading forensic pathologists, Cyril Wecht, who opened my eyes to investigating crime scenes.

I’ve done my own research so much so that my children are sometimes hesitant to watch certain television shows or movies with me because I point out the gorey errors and why the subsequent trial coverage is incorrect.

One cold case I remember was about a young boy, barely a teen, being shot with a rifle by his best friend long ago. Years later when I interviewed the family members, they told me of a rainy night when the boy was sent to the store to buy some cigarettes. They were playing cards — when the boy didn’t return, family and neighbors went searching for him. They combed the area but didn’t find the body, however, it later turned up in a place that they had certainly crossed many times during the search — boy had been shot in the head; body moved.

Though many suspected they knew who the killer was, including the police, there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges at the time. Evidence was circumstantial in the case.

When I was handed the case, I did my homework, reviewed the crime scene, police files and talked to witnesses. The suspect’s criminal background indicated that he may have had more than a few skeletons in his closet, but that information can’t be used in the early stages of a case.

Oddly, knowing that the suspect was a “frequent flyer” of the justice system didn’t frighten me, but served as an adrenaline rush when I knocked on the guy’s front door seeking an interview mere hours before he was arrested. He was not home.

Interestingly enough, after reading the stories that I wrote, a prosecutor decided to roll the dice and pursue charges against the man decades later. Memories fade over time, so it was a risky venture all those years later to cross examine witnesses on the stand with evidence that was… circumstantial enough to give rise to doubt, but not reason…

Because it was an open courtroom, crowded at that, I sat near the suspect, very near, much closer than the media is allowed these days.

Suspect knew who I was.

I’ll never forget a moment we shared — he stared at me and I stared back smiling, both of us understanding that he may be able to fool the courts, but not me.

Looking deep into his eyes, I could sense a sheer contempt for the court proceedings, that he was smarter than everyone else. A pro, he kept in character while we stared at each other but he knew that I knew what he had done. There was not so much a psychotic coldness in his being, so much as he was calculating a time-honored acting approach to giving the perfect performance.

There is almost no chance that charges are ever dropped in a preliminary hearing, however, based on the decades-old circumstantial evidence and testimony from aged witnesses, the judge dismissed the charges believing that was not enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Afterward, I suspect police and prosecutors paid close attention to the man’s presence in the community.
Looking back as the past is prologue, I remember something Dr. Wecht told me — never assume anything at a crime scene and always ask questions.

And from my experience, police and prosecutors have procedures that may sometimes confound the public, but these protocols are essential to pursuing an investigation and serving justice. Trust me, it’s not like you see it on television.

Journalists cover crimes, past and present, not only to shed a light on the legal system in the hopes that justice is served, but to show the evil side of man’s nature so that perhaps someone may understand this as a warning, embrace their angels before taking the path into darkness.