Opinion: Shining a brighter light on victims, criminals

Why are we obsessed with crime?

Why are so many gritty detective novels best sellers? And why do those true crime documentaries pop up on our TV’s every night?

Sure, there is a dark fascination. What makes someone pick up a gun and pull the trigger? And be honest: When you heard of some terrible, violent event, what did you think? That could have been me.

But crime also tells us something elemental about who we are and where we live.

Think about the crimes that have defined metro Atlanta and Georgia over the years. Early in the 20th century, there were lynchings — Leo Frank, the Jewish factory superintendent convicted of killing a teenage worker in Cobb County, and two black couples murdered at Moore’s Ford Bridge near Athens in what would come to be known as the last mass lynching in America. We had terrorism before that word was in vogue – the 1958 bombing of the Temple. The child murders that terrified Atlanta in the late 1970’s. The Olympic Park bombing that marred the city’s moment in the global spotlight. The deadly rampage that was the Brian Nichols courthouse shooting.

Like it or not, crime often shapes how we see the world. It helps determine where we live and send our children to school. It can sway our vote toward one political candidate or another. It is a prism through which we sometimes view race.

Even those who believe in limited government generally agree that taxpayer dollars should be spent to keep citizens safe.

With all this in mind, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is ramping up our crime and public safety coverage with a new team focused on giving you the latest breaking news, along with criminal justice trends and interactive digital features that will help keep you informed and safe. We’ll be revisiting some of the region’s unsolved cases, such as a mysterious beheading along Lake Oconee and a sheriff whose killing has gone unpunished for more than four decades.

We’ll also work to hold law enforcement institutions accountable and to ask tough questions when they’re necessary.

INTERACTIVE: Atlanta’s homicide victims for 2017

SEARCH: See how many sex offenders are in your zip code

You’re in good hands.We’ve tapped an experienced team of veteran journalists for this effort.

Among them:

Christian Boone helped provide gavel-to-gavel coverage last year of the murder trial of Ross Harris. Remember him? The dad who left his son in a hot car. Before that, Christian wrote about Gary Michael Hilton, convicted of decapitating Meredith Emerson, last seen alive as she hiked North Georgia’s Blood Mountain. And he’s been dogged in pursuing developments in the strange death of Kendrick Johnson — the South Georgia high school student whose body was found wrapped in a gym mat. His reporting on that case continues to break new ground. So does his work on the shooting by DeKalb County police of an Afghanistan war veteran who was naked and unarmed when he was gunned down.

Rhonda Cook has been following criminal justice policy in Georgia for more than two decades. She has covered some of the biggest stories in Atlanta, like the Nichols courthouse shooting and the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial to name just a few. She has also witnessed a mind-boggling 26 executions. When you ask Rhonda why she would subject herself to something so macabre, she has a ready answer: because someone needs to. The death penalty is the single biggest power the government can exercise, she says, and there needs to be an objective witness there to provide the check to that power. Rhonda is that witness.

Alexis Stevens was in court not long ago to see the first appearance by the Gwinnett County mother accused of killing her husband along with four of her five children. She covered the murder of two teenagers behind a Publix in Roswell and the awful case of Jorelys Rivera, sexually assaulted, stabbed and beaten to death, her 7-year-old body stuffed in a Cherokee County dumpster. She also wrote about the car crash that killed four young women attending University of Georgia. I mention those stories because Alexis is a mom herself. And she brings a compassion and humanity to her reporting on those terrible tragedies, which too often seem to involve children.

While these reporters will dig deeper, we also have a team of reporters and editors who are dedicated to real-time updates on urgent stories. They are Steve Burns, Ellen Eldridge, Lauren Foreman, Raisa Habersham, Rodney Thrash and Kevin Whaley.

I have the privilege of editing this team. I am hoping we can tell the stories of the victims and the perpetrators; the police and the protesters; the prosecution and the defense.

As a young reporter in upstate New York, I can still remember arriving at one of my first crime scenes. The yellow police tape surrounded a shabby house where a woman’s body had been discovered. I had read Edna Buchanan — the legendary and glamorous Miami Herald crime reporter — but this scene looked decidedly more grim then I had naively imagined.

The police wouldn’t say a word. Let me rephrase that: They wouldn’t even venture close enough to the perimeter of the crime scene for me to ask a question. The neighbors were surly and unhelpful. No one was willing to provide their name or a quote. I was brandishing a reporter’s notebook, but it contained not a single note.

It was a humbling and frustrating experience. But I tried to remember that the person who had died had a story. And so did the person who killed her. And it made me realize that this kind of reporting is hard work. It’s replete with sorrow and pain. It can be difficult to stay positive when the stories are so negative.

But then there are times when what you bring out into the light can make a difference.

Soon after Christian Boone wrote a story about sex abuse by a Boy Scout leader, several other victims came forward to say they too had been abused by the same scoutmaster decades ago. They’ve since joined a lawsuit seeking some measure of justice.

That can make the work worth the heartache.

You can follow our coverage on this important topic by going to myAJC.com/crime/. You can also subscribe to our new weekly Crime and Public Safety newsletter. Go to http://membercenter.ajc.com/newsletters

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