Naming Names

When a federal document points a finger at an accused killer, should the media report the name -- even when no charges have been filed?



On Friday, March 7, federal judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued a two-page opinion about Document 212, the FBI document that Angola prison inmate Daniel Bright III first tried to get in 1999 ("Name Dropping," March 4). In the ruling, Feldman explained that he had reviewed the FBI document in his chambers and had found one reference related to Bright's 1996 conviction for the murder of Murray Barnes. That reference, he writes, is this: "The source further advised that Daniel Bright, AKA 'Poonie,' is in jail for the murder committed by Tracey Davis. The source stated that he/she has heard Davis bragging about doing the murder and how he (Davis) is confident that Bright will be able to beat the charge because they don't have enough evidence against him."

Feldman further concluded that, "given the patent seriousness of the statement, Bright may have been wrongfully convicted of murder even though his prior criminal history hardly makes him a candidate for citizen of the year."

The patent seriousness of that same statement can also lead to certain conclusions about Tracey Davis, the New Orleans man who has not been arrested or charged in this case. As a rule, journalists don't name a suspect until he's been officially charged. Yet here is this compelling court case and here is Tracey Davis' name in a public document that journalists technically have every right to reveal. Indeed, local media -- including The Times-Picayune and now, Gambit Weekly -- have printed the name. Is that fair?

This ethical question is becoming more common, partly because of recent legal developments. Every few months, it seems, another convicted murderer or rapist is released thanks to DNA evidence or the work of nationwide initiatives like the Innocence Project. But in order to free those innocent clients, defense lawyers and investigators often must finger someone else for the crime. And so there's a time period in which the case is in limbo. One seemingly innocent person sits in prison waiting for a district attorney to decide whether his case merits release. In the meantime, another person is free, but accused in public without the standard forum -- a trial -- to refute those accusations.

Tracey Davis, reached by telephone at his job, says that since the news broke last week, "people are looking at me all crazy. They're criticizing my name, accusing me of something I didn't do. It's embarrassing." The situation is awkward, Davis says, not only for him, but for his family, boss, friends, girlfriend and two daughters. "People in stores don't even want to talk to me anymore. It's miserable," he says.

At this point, says Davis, no police officer or district attorney can show him anything official. "If I did something so wrong," he asks, "why don't they put a warrant out for me? Without that, there's nothing I can do about it."

This case -- the 1995 murder of Murray Barnes -- has had many strange twists and turns. At this point, Tracey Davis readily admits that he knows some facts about the case, because his sister, Christina Davis, served prison time for accessory to murder after the fact. But other than that, he maintains his innocence.

Journalists learn in school that it's standard practice to protect the name of a person like Tracey Davis, unless he has been arrested and charged. That is the industry norm, "but it's violated all the time," says Charles Davis (no relation to Tracey), the director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and co-chair of the Freedom of Information Committee for Society of Professional Journalists.

Davis explains that journalists won't wait until charges are filed if the newsworthiness of the individual or the crime merits an exception. For example, as the news broke last week that Elizabeth Smart had been found alive, newspeople were "naming names (of suspects) and naming names of accomplices," he says. "And none of those people had been charged." Those names were viewed as highly newsworthy material, Davis says, so exceptions were made.

A common defense-attorney complaint, says Davis, is that journalists are quick to report arrests but never run acquittals. That's a fairly legitimate point, he says. "We -- journalists -- put you in the paper if you're arrested for rape, but if later the charges are dismissed because you were nowhere near that crime, nobody really knows." As a result, the people around you -- neighbors and co-workers -- will often remember only the arrest.

For his part, Bright's lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, says that he's sympathetic to Tracey Davis and his frustrations. But, he contends, if he has to choose between seeing Davis' name in the newspaper and keeping his client -- Dan Bright -- in prison for a murder he didn't commit, he'll choose to release Tracey Davis' name.

At this point, says Stafford-Smith, it's worth remembering why this information came to light in the first place. "Dan Bright has been called a murderer for eight years now and he didn't do it. That's the real crime here."

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