No-Name Offense

The Chron struggles over whether to name a suspect

There was a bizarre little story in the February 1 Houston Chronicle.

The facts were intriguing enough: According to the story, a local defense attorney, "believed to have been drinking" in mid-afternoon, plowed his Jaguar into an oncoming car near downtown and killed a man. "Police said they smelled alcohol on the attorney who was driving and took him in" to be tested. The attorney refused a Breathalyzer exam, so a blood test was taken.

All this was in the brief, un-bylined story. One thing that wasn't: the attorney's name.

Officials figured he wasn't a risk to disappear, so they've put off filing any charges until results of the blood test come back. (As of February 14, the results were still pending.) Houston police don't officially release the names of such people unless charges are filed, HPD spokesman Robert Hurst says.

The attorney in question is Brian Coyne; while he's no Racehorse Haynes in terms of being a household name, he's a courthouse fixture. He has mostly private clients now, but at one point he used to be frequently appointed to represent indigent defendants, including a few whose trials were briefly newsworthy. He once gained fame by asking for a reset on a court date via a postcard from Hawaii.

Fellow lawyers say Coyne attended a farewell party for one of the county's court coordinators before the accident, which killed 46-year-old Michael Bruns of The Woodlands. Bruns was named in the Chronicle story, albeit without any biographical details; he was a senior vice president of JP Morgan Chase Bank and father of three.

So, do you name Coyne in the story? At least one journalism-ethics expert says yes. "I think most papers would name him," says Kelly McBride, an instructor at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank. "Even if he wasn't drunk, the story implies he was reckless and a charge may still result. I also think there's a good ethical defense for naming him. He's a public figure, charged with assisting in the execution of justice. It is also part of the paper's job to determine if this attorney is getting favorable treatment from the cops because of his status."

The Chronicle, however, flinched at printing the name. On February 17 editor Jeff Cohen said the paper's policy is to make "a judgment call" on whether to print a name. City Councilman Bert Keller's name, for instance, was printed before DWI charges were filed against him in 2000.

In the current case, Cohen said, "An editor took a conservative approach and decided to hold the name of the arrested person."

We first talked to Cohen about all this on the evening of February 13, a Thursday; at about 6:45 p.m. the next day he left a voice-mail saying the information he gave us initially about the Chron's policy "wasn't 100 percent correct." Lo and behold, Saturday's paper had a longish Metro-front story on Coyne and Bruns. We're flattered. (Cohen admitted that our call caused him to get involved with the decision to do a story with Coyne's name.)

On the whole, of course, it's best to wait until charges are filed before naming someone in a news story. Things become grayer as the person involved is more of a public person, either through being well known or being in some sort of official position.

And where does Coyne himself weigh in on all this? We don't know -- he slammed the phone down when we tried to ask him about the accident, saying, "I can't talk to you."

She Had It Coming

Three insights gleaned from the breaking news coverage of the Clara Harris verdict on February 13:

1. At one point, CNN had a split screen as it waited on the jury. One screen showed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testifying to Congress about war, and the potential for thousands of Americans to be killed in terror attacks; the other was reserved for…a domestic dispute in Texas that will go down in history as "Oh, yeah, that lady in the parking lot." When push came to shove, they threw Rumsfeld overboard for the important stuff. There's some symbolism there for the state of the union these days, but it's too depressing to go into.

2. We're glad, very glad, that Harris -- according to several reports -- Showed No Emotion as the verdict was read. She thus ably fulfilled her duty as a journalistic cliché. In journalism, defendants who learn their fate tend to pretty much fall under the No Emotion category. Harris actually showing emotion would have been as shocking a development as if rain had actually Dampened the Spirits of somebody.

3. Kristan Thorne, reporter on the scene for News 24 Houston, told viewers that "speaking on behalf of about 30 reporters, we were all surprised" by the verdict. (Actual betting pool results were not disclosed.) She also added this trenchant analysis of the decision by the nine-woman, three-man jury: "A lot of times -- and I don't mean to stereotype -- women work off of their emotions."

We should cut her some slack, we guess. Women tend to get frazzled on deadline, we hear.

 
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