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Protecting kids from shadowy justice

From the Summer 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. For three years in the early…

From the Summer 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

For three years in the early 1980s, I pulled the general assignment beat at the St. Paul Pioneer Press every Sunday afternoon. As anyone who has ever been the only human being in a newsroom hour after hour can tell you, you're either bored out of your skull or overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news.

One Sunday in 1982, I saw a brief story on the AP wire reporting that a young, single teacher had been found murdered in the living room in her small house in Lyle, Minn., a tiny town along the Iowa border. I found a photographer and we took off for Lyle, about a three-hour drive.

In many regards, it was a typical small-town murder — the sheriff called in the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, neighbors were terrified and the local café was buzzing. I hung around for a couple of days, assuming a drifter had shot her with a small-caliber rifle through her screen door as she worked on needlepoint while watching TV. Or perhaps it was a jealous boyfriend.

What I wasn't prepared for was the arrest of one of her 14-year-old math students. The arrest of this chunky, blonde neighbor boy who reportedly was angry about a grade on a math test left the town reeling.

In those days, Minnesota had a law that kept the public out of juvenile delinquency hearings. This child was so young; it was highly unlikely a judge would ever order him tried as an adult in open court.

Minnesota media and several progressive judges had been working on experimental rules that would allow the media to attend juvenile proceedings with the understanding that no information would be reported that could identify the accused child. I was highly interested in the case, and persuaded my editors to petition the juvenile court to allow us to cover the detention hearing. So for two weeks before Christmas, a small cadre of reporters sat in a small courtroom in Austin, Minn., and covered the hearing.

To this day, I can still see that young boy sitting in the courtroom, no expression on his face, not even an acknowledgment of his parents at the back of the room. I couldn't imagine the rage that would motivate a child to kill. Unfortunately, such cases are not as rare as I naively thought they were.

The boy was found delinquent and ordered detained until his 19th birthday. His family moved out of town. His lawyer told me a decade later that he considered the boy to be a success story — after his release he assumed another name, finished school and was holding a good job. I hope he's still doing well.

That case helped lead to a more progressive attitude toward public access to juvenile delinquency and child protection hearings in Minnesota. As Kathleen Cullinan's cover story illustrates, citizens can't insist on improvements in the justice system for children unless they know the struggles faced by courts, families, victims and social workers.

A secretive juvenile justice system hides screw ups and keeps those who need to be held accountable from facing public scrutiny. In the end, children suffer.

Once again, the Reporters Committee mourns the loss of one of its early leaders. Walter Cronkite had served on our steering committee since 1973. His stature and schedule did not allow him to attend many meetings, but he was always generous with his time and financial resources. And when he disagreed with positions we took, he did it in a most agreeable way.

Mr. Cronkite has left us with a collection of delightful, self-deprecating notes.

His career exemplifies our mission — good government can only occur when the public has access to thorough, truthful, independently gathered information. He was a class act. We hope we made him proud.