Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I'm confessin'

It's been a while -- more than a month, but who's counting? -- since we checked in on the case of the Lansing Serial Spree Suspect, so let's have a look.

As you'll recall from our last thrilling installment, the cops had declared their suspect to be a serial killer and were expecting those charges, um, Thursday or Friday or really any day now. And truth be told, charges were filed in one of those five killings the cops declared him guilty of. But the case has been in the news of late for other reasons, namely official backtracking on the alleged guilt of a man imprisoned in the killing of a college teacher in Lansing in 2005. Lansing, we were told, was "abuzz" with talk of the purported connection between the new purported perp and the older killing.

Today's story brings us up to date, sort of, but it also reminds us of the perils of corner-cutting in cop reporting:

1 man freed as 1 confesses
Parolee says he killed prof in 2005

Two core violations of best practices before we're even out of the display type. One, it's not a "confession" until it's admitted in the guy's trial. (Yes, pace the text, that means a cop can't "confirm" the "confession," particularly when the best you can do is lift the alleged "confirmation" from another paper.) Two, we have no idea what the parolee "says." All we know is what the cops say he said, and if you can't tell the difference, you're in the wrong sport. And hold that thought, because we're going to come back to it.

Now for the update on any-day-now suspect Matthew Macon, who the cops now say has confessed to the 2005 slaying. He "also has been linked to the deaths this summer of five women and another woman in 2004." And what has the justice system done about these links? "Macon, 28, so far has been charged in only one of the five slayings" (if you thought five plus one made six, you were right, but don't hold your breath waiting for a resolution).

Given that even the prosecutor has asked for a new trial for the guy originally convicted in the 2005 killing, it's good to hear that he's out of prison. Let's have a look, though, at how the paper reports on some of the doubts raised about that case (which I can't find in the archives; murder in Lansing classrooms must not have been a big deal that year):

McCollum was convicted despite questions of DNA evidence that did not match him. His attorney, Hugh Clarke Jr., said new evidence -- videotapes from Lansing Community College -- may show McCollum could not have been at the scene of the crime.

Also, McCollum's statements to police, used as a confession in his trial, came under fire as having been manipulated evidence.

Dive! Dive! The "statements ... used as a confession in his trial" were questioned as "manipulated evidence." You figure that ought to trigger just a tad bit of skepticism about pretrial claims of "confessions" in general? And about the new "confession" in the current case? And the degree to which a cop can "confirm" it to the Lansing paper?

Sigh. This is the stuff people were supposed to learn from crusty old editors in their first tank-town newspaper job. It's stuff we harp on in undergrad skills classes today, and for a reason: You are not the cops' stenographer. You are not an auxiliary detective. You're a reporter. You provide an accurate account of events in a context that gives them meaning (thank you, Hutchins Commission). You live and work in the empirical world. Write about what's known, not about what might be.



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