Crime Reporters Face a New Norm in Florida

 

This past Wednesday afternoon, a young man walked into a Duval county SunTrust and killed everyone inside; four tellers and one customer. The Sun Sentinel called it a mass shooting and while law enforcement agencies have their own definitions of a mass shooting, the massacre is certainly like a mass shooting in this sense: the SunTrust shooter was not trying to rob the bank. He killed because he fantasied about killing, making him no different than the Parkland shooter.

The case naturally has the attention of news media but information is more scarce than usual. Of the five people murdered in the SunTrust shooting, we only know the names of two. This is because two of the victims’ families wanted the names released while the other three did not. Normally, the desires of the family wouldn’t matter, but one of the amendments passed in the 2018 mid-terms changed this. Amendment 6 brought Marsy’s Law – which seen state legislatures across the country – into Florida. The law seeks to broadly protect victims of crime, including keeping their names and information private.

The privacy portion of the law caused some controversy when the Tampa Bay Police Department withheld the names of two people found shot and dead in a car not far from Busch Gardens. Tampa Bay Police defended their decision saying that Marsy’s Law keeps them from releasing victim information. However, critics have argued that the department has misunderstood what the law says. More specifically, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri weighed in. He interprets the right to privacy under Marsy’s Law as an “opt-in” system. In other words, families of the victims have to request privacy in order to have their information withheld. Furthermore, he believes that releasing victim information makes for a transparent justice system and helps citizens be informed about crime in their community.

I asked Jennifer Fennell of CoreMessage, one of the main organizations which advocated for Marsy’s Law in Florida, how she and other advocates of the bill interpreted what they had fought for. She wrote me in an email, “Under Marsy’s Law for Florida/Amendment 6, the right to privacy is a fundamental specific right, automatic and not contained in the “opt in” section of rights enumerated. This includes the release of victims’ names to parties other than the defendant/the defense.” She added that privacy was bigger than just wanting be left alone by news media. Privacy also helped keep victims’ location and phone numbers from those who might harass or revictimize them.

This line of reasoning is not new. Ronald Reagan commissioned a task force in the 80s to investigate the plights of violent crime victims. The task force interveiwed over 100 crime victims and described their suffering in narrative detail in the opening to their 1982 final report. The report made 68 recommendations including adding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically for victims of crimes. One of the first recommendations made was to keep the addresses and phone numbers of victims private, arguing that the publicity only heightens fears of reprisal by the violent criminals that attacked them in the first place. “Although this fear cannot be eliminated it can be mitigated by keeping the home addresses and phone numbers of victims and witnesses private,” the report read. “At the outset there is no reason why police or prosecutors should release this information to the news media.” The recommendation didn’t gain much traction over the next two decades.

But now this reasoning is being applied to Florida, creating a new norm for news outlets. It remains to be seen if this law will be change the culture or if it will be just another experiment to die in the sunshine state.

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