In 1998, two boys were arrested and charged as adults in the rape and murder of 11-year-old Ryan Harris in Englewood, Ill., near Chicago. Media hungrily broadcast the names and images of the accused, then 7 and 8, and the public responded with bloodthirst and assumption of guilt.
Indeed, the children were proved innocent. But it took more than a month for the police's supposedly airtight case against the "young monsters" to unravel and for the boys to go home. They had confessed, after police brought them in without telling their parents they were suspects, fed them Happy Meals and weaseled false confessions out of them. But, a semen DNA match freed the boys, who later won civil lawsuits due to the emotional distress they endured.
Years later, the younger of them, Romarr Gipson, was sentenced to 52 years in prison in 2012 for an attempted gun murder. His attorney had asked for a more lenient sentence after presenting evidence that Gipson was scarred by his treatment by the public, including the media, when he was 7. No doubt, research shows that treating even guilty minor suspects as adults increases recidivism and their chances of committing more severe crimes later.
Fast-forward to today's Jackson. A 13-year-old boy was recently charged alongside a 16-year-old for carjacking and raping a 29-year-old woman. From the beginning, local media have hungrily publicized their names, as well as photos and video footage. On May 12, WLBT reported that the younger boy's attorney Faye Peterson—the former district attorney—had unsuccessfully tried to move his case to youth court (where it belongs; even the state of Mississippi is recognizing the peril of trying children as adults; see jfp.ms/youth_adults/).
In that same report, WLBT named the 13-year-old in this mocking sentence, as if they were paparazzi stalking a Kardashian: "[Name withheld] wasn't happy to see our cameras outside Judge Houston Patton's courtroom Monday morning." The report did not then delve into any of the research about the dangers, including later to society, of both the media and the criminal-justice system putting innocent (until maybe proved guilty) children on display like they're exhibits in a freak show.
Like Ryan Harris, this crime is tragic. And unlike Harris' case, these two teenagers may well be guilty of it. But there is nothing useful, and much harmful, about the media turning such cases into a circus. And it does nothing for public safety and may well endanger it by increasing recidivism on the part of those put on sensationalistic display.
In fact, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma used an eerily similar example in its report, "Covering Children & Trauma: A Guide for Journalism Professionals" (jfp.ms/dart_kids): "Don't let pack journalism dictate your decisions about naming juveniles. Just because your competitor is naming a 13-year-old sexual offender in the wake of community hysteria doesn't mean you should."
In the vast majority of juvenile cases, there is no need to name and picture the accused, especially before they are convicted and probably afterward. Jackson media must decide to act more responsibly toward juveniles and our community at large.