Monday, September 21, 2009

Ted must be rolling over in his grave

It’s September, with weather as warm as it was 10 years ago when Ted Natt was buried.

Maybe that’s why he comes to mind as I read the news this month.

Ted was the third publisher and owner of the family-owned Daily News. He sold the paper, reluctantly, in the spring of 1999. That August, he died in a helicopter crash as he flew home from the beach.

I’ve thought of him lately, and not just because of mild weather or the milestone.

First, I read about a new round of brutal murders in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Thugs from a drug cartel burst into a rehab facility, lined people up and executed them.

That same week, in Morelia, the capitol of Michoacan, Mexico, the deputy police chief was gunned down, joining other murdered federal agents, prosecutors and judges.

It’s easy to think of Mexico as a society of lawless mayhem.

But I’ve visited Morelia, a colonial city of courtyard gardens, wide boulevards of lovely shops, cobblestone streets where stylish businesswomen walk uniform-clad children to the bus each morning.

Things on the surface don’t always promise order in any society. The rule of law can be a thin veneer over our passion for punishment and vengeance.

Ted knew that.

He wrote often about civil liberties. He cared about the rights of the accused. His columns supported legal services for the poor.

He opposed the death penalty, especially after he witnessed, as a young reporter, an execution in Walla Walla. He always stressed the importance of due process of law.

Due process is one of those legal phrases that John Grisham uses for book titles.

It sums up our access to justice. In the case of a person arrested for a crime that could result in prison or execution, he or she has the right to be presumed innocent unless and until the prosecution, acting for the state, proves guilt.

If they can’t do it, they cannot convict and punish the accused.

Who knows what Ted would have thought and written about Guantanamo.

Ted trusted due process. He understood it as a cornerstone of a justice system that protects the rights of the individual from the mob, whether they wear gang apparel or suits.

I remember one time when Ted came barreling out of his office, red-faced and fuming. That day’s paper had landed on his desk with a headline that took it for granted that an arrested guy was guilty.

If he were here this month, I could see him fuming over the media’s treatment of the murder of the Yale graduate student.

The media swarm over stories like this, hounding law enforcement, hyping every anonymous tip, running the same poignant details and the same inappropriate photo of the woman over and over.

When a man was questioned a “person of interest” — before he was a suspect or arrested — his neighbors cheered his apprehension and the press rooted around in his life as if it were a garage sale.

He was overbearing! Ah ha!

Why is this wrong? Aren’t we curious? Isn’t it important, the murder of this precious human being?

Yes, and yes. All the more reason not to treat a tragedy as if were a Nancy Drew mystery.

The 24-hour scavenger news cycle doesn’t just prey on emotions. It also gnaws away at due process, a fundamental right, by conditioning us to presume guilt.

Remember, we are the ones who could end up on a jury.

We are the ones who could end up accused.

If you want to read one of the many accounts of how due process remains in jeopardy, try the Sept. 7 New Yorker magazine account of Cameron Willingham, a young Texas father convicted of burning his house to kill his two children.

If Ted Natt were here to read it, he’d run out of his office in a fit of anger. The righteous kind.

Cathy Zimmerman, the former This Day editor for The Daily News, was laid off in May. She is an English teacher at Lower Columbia College and a freelance writer.
(Article taken from The Daily News)

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