Editor Column: Why we aren't naming the suspect in referee's death
A soccer player allegedly kills a referee with a single punch, but The Tribune won't tell you who the player is?
We at The Tribune believe the public needs and deserves access to public information, which means we are not in the habit of holding back. But we were following our usual procedure this week when we decided to withhold the name of the 17-year-old accused of delivering a fatal blow to referee Ricardo Portillo's head two weeks ago. Our thinking is based on the belief that children make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but they still may deserve to start adulthood without their criminal histories appearing in the newspaper.
Note that I said we followed procedure and not policy, and that is an important distinction. It becomes difficult to craft broad policies to fit every specific situation, so we prefer to have consistent procedures for reviewing circumstances in individual cases. In this case, the review of the case found that at this point the young man still deserves the possibility of moving into adulthood without a trail of Tribune stories following him. Our reporters have not uncovered a previous history of violent crimes, and it does not appear the act involved any long-held intent to harm.
Admittedly, this one is a borderline case, and there are other local news media who have decided to use his name. By any measure this young man is accused of an indefensibly violent act, and he will be 18 years old in less than six months. That's almost an adult, and certainly old enough to be held accountable for his actions. And prosecutors in the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office are seeking to certify him as an adult for the purpose of prosecuting him. They only do that when they believe a juvenile has committed violent, willful crimes, is of sufficient maturity and has minimal chance of rehabilitation.
But before the juvenile is put in the adult system, a judge has to sign off. That decision is in the hands of 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly Hornak, The judge has not ruled on the certification, but she has already issued an order prohibiting the "reporting" of identifying information about the player or his family obtained in her courtroom.
The Tribune and other Utah news organizations are challenging that decision. Even as the news outlets go different ways on whether to name the suspect in their reports, those news outlets are united in believing it is their right, not the judge's, to decide what can be reported. Attorneys for the news organizations argued that such a restriction constitutes "prior restraint," the term used to describe a government action to stop publication of information. Case law going back decades has found prior restraint violates the First Amendment.
So, even as we continue to withhold the name from our readers, we are fighting for the right to give it to them.
And, if the court does indeed certify him as an adult, it's likely that The Tribune would begin to use his name, as we have with other juveniles whose cases have been moved to the adult system. If a court has ruled a defendant should be treated as an adult, then generally we will treat him as one, too.
But that is not automatic. Again, we will rely on our procedure to review and weigh the facts at that point. We know such decisions can have profound effects on young people and their families, and we don't make them lightly.
Tim Fitzpatrick is deputy editor of The Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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