Monday, January 16, 2012

Homicide Watch

Most of the time, journalists and prosecutors don't mix (notable exception - Mark Pryor).  D.A. offices release snippets to the press and only one or two people in the office are designated to speak to the press about cases.  It's a safeguard against leaking information to the public that may harm a case or witnesses.  Plus, there are ethical principles we are bound by.

I flipped the tables after I stumbled upon the website for Homicide Watch.  Laura Amico and her husband Chris started this site in 2010.  It tracks every homicide in Washington D.C. from the incident through the court proceedings until the case is resolved.  The interactive site allows us to click on either a victim or suspect and follow all the information on the case.  This includes memorial information, court documents, detective information, and procedural information.  Be sure to check out the 2011 year end review.  

Laura graciously agreed to answer some questions about her novel reporting methods.  Now the prosecutor conducts the interview.  The first part of the interview is below.  Check back Wednesday for the remainder.  Also, Laura's blog and Homicide Watch are now part of the scrolling blogs on the bottom right of this site.

Prosecutor's Discretion:  Where did the idea for Homicide Watch come from?

Laura Amico:  The idea for Homicide Watch came from a convergence of factors.  I was a new resident to DC (I moved from California with my now husband when he got a job offer here) and I was looking for a job in journalism, which was my profession in California.  Our new neighborhood was occasionally impacted by homicide and I wanted to know what was happening with those cases. I found it very difficult to find information in the media, but realized that there were many other streams of information that flowed just under the radar. When I perhaps should have been putting out resumes, I instead researched and built a prototype of an online journalism project that would draw from these streams to build the resource I needed.

Pros.Dis.:  You spent some time as a beat reporter.  How did that help you prepare for launching this site? 

L.A.:  My approach to everything I do on Homicide Watch remains rooted in the principals and ethics of news gathering. It's what I know how to do. But it's also where the need was. When I'd look at homicide victims' obituaries, and victims' and suspects' Facebook pages and Twitter streams, I'd see people using those pages to try and update each other about what was happening in the case. So I knew there was a need for fact-based information. My background in beat reporting also helped me visualize the structure for the site. The earliest description of how a case would be covered on Homicide Watch was that a single page would include all the information a reporter would have in his or her notebook, or on their desk. So I had to think about all the tiny pieces and all the big pieces. There's victims' and suspects' names, but there's also detention status, there's documents, there's the detectives names and contact information. There's links to social media, etc.

Pros. Dis.:  We get a lot of questions and comments on our site about victim's rights.  Is  Homicide Watch geared toward anyone in particular like victims or suspects? 

L.A.:  No. I think that there's the assumption that we focus on victims because a lot of news media focuses on victims. It's the easier story to tell and that's partly a function of how the criminal justice system works. In DC, in 16 months of covering every homicide "crime to conviction," I've had only one case go to trial. It's just a really long process and for a lot of news organizations, it's hard to keep focus on a story over, say, two years. That's why the structure of Homicide Watch (organizing the information on victim and suspect pages) is so important. When you do follow a case through the system, and report on the ins and outs, you start to see that the defendants have stories and histories, too. I always want to know, regardless of whether a defendant is guilty or innocent, how did he get here? Knowing those stories, from both victims and suspects, helps us better understand the problem of violent crime, which is ultimately the goal of Homicide Watch.

Pros. Dis.:  How is your relationship with prosecutor's offices?  In D.C. the United States Attorney prosecutes homicides because it is federal land and Maryland and Virginia have state prosecutors.  Is it easier to work with one or the other? 

L.A.:  I have an excellent working relationship with the USAO in DC. US Attorney Ronald Machen recently sat down with me for an interview and I think the resulting story was enlightening for many of our readers. The press office is an excellent resource for reporting needs: documents, background information, and helping to understand points of law. Individual prosecutors have returned emails after midnight, and have helped me follow cases. I haven't worked with any state prosecutors.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing site! I wish Philadelphia had one of these (although as I understand it our homicide rate is through the roof). I think Laura is right that you need to get both sides of the story and yes, without an objective, fact-based source of information, rumors and conjecture can run WILD. Love this post!