Picking up pieces after charges are dropped

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A COMMON complaint about The Sun and other newspapers is that reports of criminal charges being dropped are not as prominently displayed as earlier stories on the charges being filed.

It's an issue that editors and reporters at The Sun worry about, too. Sensational stories can, on occasion, turn out to be sensationally wrong, and damaged reputations are difficult to repair.

With that in mind, reporters work hard to check the facts and sources of potentially damaging stories. The newspaper generally does not write about threatened lawsuits and relies on court and police sources for core facts in criminal cases.

The Sun makes a similar effort to prominently report the facts and circumstances when high-profile cases end with the charges being dismissed.

That's what happened in recent weeks when the newspaper published follow-up stories and columns on two such cases, describing how the notoriety from the coverage changed the lives of those involved.

Federal charges of misuse of grant funds against Stephen P. Amos, a former Maryland agency director, were dropped Jan. 12, marking the end of a politically charged case that first surfaced during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

Amos was director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention and reported to then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat. Former U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, a Republican, began the investigation during Townsend's campaign for governor.

Amos was finally indicted in March last year, charged with misusing $6.3 million in federal money earmarked for crime-prevention projects. He was the only person charged in the investigation. There was never any evidence that he used the funds for personal enrichment.

Early last month, a Baltimore County elementary school principal named Kevin M. Lindsey was charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse based on the "recovered memories" of two sisters. Lindsey had been put on paid administrative leave immediately after the allegations surfaced in October. The charges were dropped Dec. 29.

The Sun has published numerous stories about the Amos case since 2002. Most appeared on the Metro front, but some were played on page 1A. The Jan. 13 story about the dismissal of charges against Amos also was on the A-section front.

Even more important was Sun reporter Greg Garland's Jan. 15 article on page 1A that detailed the investigation's devastating impact on Amos' life.

He lost his job and was unable to get another one because of the unresolved criminal charges. His wife suffered a breakdown, and his marriage broke up. He lost his house and his savings and was forced to borrow money from relatives.

"This article is a reminder of how public charges, even when they are eventually dismissed, can have such great effect on people," one reader said.

Garland, who has participated in The Sun's coverage from the beginning, sees a bigger picture: "When the feds launch an investigation, we [journalists] often tend to suspend our normal skepticism." (Michael Olesker's Jan. 18 column described the powerful effects political pressure had on the case.)

Serious daily competition with The Washington Post and The Sun's determination to aggressively pursue the story intensified the process.

"Despite the pressures, we tried to be measured and restrained in our coverage because our review of thousands of pages of grant records and dozens of interviews suggested there was less than met the eye," Garland said.

The newspaper published all the significant stories about the Kevin Lindsey case, including the dropping of charges against him, on the Metro section front. This approach was consistent, although it could be argued that the dismissal story was worthy of the front page.

Gregory Kane first addressed the issue of fairness to Kevin Lindsey in his Jan. 5 column, arguing that charging Lindsey with sexual abuse based on "recovered memory" without having medical experts examine the evidence first was a travesty.

"Thank you so much for your commentary," said Bonnie Johnson, one of Lindsey's former students. "I wish there was something I could do to clear his name and to restore the trust in him so carelessly stolen."

After his administrative leave had been lifted, The Sun covered Lindsey's return to McCormick Elementary School on Jan. 18. Reporter Sara Neufeld's page 1A article documented the warm reception he received from teachers and students. The story recounted how one teacher told Lindsey that he looked wonderful. "I've lost 25 pounds," he responded. "That's what felony charges will do to you."

The Sun's decision to play this story prominently was, like the decision about the Amos article, correct. It was fair to Lindsey and gave readers the needed perspective on how the charges affected his life.

"Mr. Amos is far from alone in suffering irreparable damage to his life and reputation," said reader Sam Bricker, referring to these kinds of cases. "Maybe your paper should start looking into this."

I am confident that it will.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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