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Viewpoints

Is the Family of a Defendant Entitled to Privacy?

January 27, 2011 11:03:00 pm
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By Robin L. Barton

When Jared Loughner was arrested after opening fire in a Tucson strip mall on Jan. 8, his life became an open book subject to the scrutiny of the media and the general public. In an effort to learn more about the man responsible for this tragedy, the media descended upon his parents. They kept silent for several days, but eventually issued a brief statement saying in part, “We ask the media to respect our privacy.” Should the media honor this request?

In the eyes of the criminal justice system, an individual arrested for a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Yet in the eyes of the media, the opposite is often the case. And although the legal system is restricted by the safeguards in place to protect a defendant’s privacy, journalists aren’t so hampered and generally feel free to dig into every aspect of the defendant’s life. There’s a strong case to be made that anything and everything about a defendant is fair game. But it’s not necessarily appropriate for journalists to turn the lives of the defendant’s family—his parents, spouse, siblings, children—upside down.

When the media turns its attention to a defendant’s family, this scrutiny can cost the family its privacy. According to reports, Loughner’s parents, Randy and Amy, have always been very private people. Their neighbors seem to know very little about them, describing them as “antisocial.”

After the shooting, reporters gathered on the Loughners’ street and in front of their house. At one point, an overzealous photographer jumped their back fence to get a picture of what appeared to be a skull and candles, forcing Randy Loughner to call the police. Otherwise, the Loughners have stayed in seclusion.

No one understands more about the loss of privacy that the Loughners are experiencing than Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, who was responsible for the Columbine shootings with Eric Harris. In an article Klebold wrote for O magazine in 2009, she describes the immediate aftermath: “Helicopters began circling overhead to capture a killer’s family on film. Cars lined the road and onlookers gawked to get a better view.”

The media firestorm that can be result from a high profile case can itself cause a tragedy. For example, the loss of privacy for Bernie Madoff’s family in the wake of his arrest and guilty plea coupled with the subsequent civil lawsuits and negative publicity may have driven Madoff’s son Mark to suicide. But he and his brother were apparently under investigation for their role in their dad’s Ponzi scheme. So perhaps Mark wasn’t an innocent bystander.

Going hand in hand with the loss of privacy is the blame inevitably heaped on a defendant’s family by the media. Susan Klebold said that although she felt like another victim of the tragedy, the rest of the community didn’t see it that way. In fact, according to a newspaper survey taken in the wake of Columbine, 83% of respondents blamed the shooters’ parents.

The jury is still out on Loughner’s parents. But blame is already beginning to fly in their direction. For example, reports suggest that there were warning signs about their son’s mental state that they ignored. Of course, it appears that Loughner’s friends and teachers as well as members of law enforcement may also have missed opportunities to help this troubled young man.

In the coming months, we’ll likely learn more about Loughner’s life and the role his upbringing played in his actions on Jan. 8. Did the Loughners raise a monster and so “deserve” all this scrutiny and criticism? Or are they simply victims who weren’t trained to recognize the possible signs of a serious mental disorder and were unprepared to handle a son with one?

It’s certainly appropriate for the media to ask these questions and explore the answers. But until all the evidence is in, the media would do well to reserve judgment on Loughner’s parents and try to respect their plea for privacy in what they’ve described as “a very difficult time.” After all, as Shakespeare said in The Tempest—and Columbine shooter Eric Harris wrote in his day planner on Mother’s Day—“Good wombs have borne bad sons.”

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. She worked in the trial division, Serious Offender Unit in the Office of Special Narcotics and Rackets Bureau, where she developed and supervised investigations that targeted high-level narcotics trafficking, gambling and racketeering in the construction industry and related labor unions.

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