Friday, May 23, 2014

When allegations turn out to be not the case

It is the question I'm inevitably asked when we write a story about someone's arrest.

"How come you only told one side of the story?"

That would be the side presented by police and prosecutors. It's true. Those stories are usually heavily weighted toward information presented by police and prosecutors, sometimes at widely publicized press conferences, sometimes from the affidavit, the legal document filed when someone is arrested. We usually make an effort to contact the accused, or their attorney, and get a comment. They usually decline.

It is important to remember that at this point these are only allegations, not facts.

That's what courts and trials are for.

I was reminded of that two more times this week, with the kind of reversals in stories that make editors bolt up from bed at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

The first involved a contractor from Radnor who was wrongly accused of stealing money from a Montgomery County church. He had denied wrongdoing.

This week Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman offered Walter Logan Jr. a written apology. Oh, and something else. A check for $1.6 million.

When she announced the charges, Ferman went on TV and called the situation "particularly despicable" and "really very low."

Logan called it something else, the start of a "five-year nightmare" in his bid to clear his name.

It has not been an especially good month for Ferman, who just a few weeks back admitted her office botched the testing in the high-profile case against former Montco Republican Party Chairman Robert Kerns. She tossed that case, which has since been picked up by the state attorney general's office.

We go to these press conferences and routinely record what prosecutors and police chiefs say as gospel. That's not always the case.

Yesterday I was a bit startled to receive a phone call from a reporter who informed me that all charges that had been filed against Chester High boys basketball coach Larry Yarbray had been dismissed.

Police had charged him with assault after an alleged domestic incident. The alleged victim failed to show up to testify at his preliminary hearing, and the judge dismissed the case.

Yarbray had denied the charges at the time they were filed.

It would have been easy for me to bury the story inside the paper. It also would have been incredibly unfair. I know this may come as a surprise to some readers, but I think long and hard about just these types of situations. When a person is acquitted or otherwise cleared of charges, I inevitably think back to how we handled the story when the charges were filed.

In Yarbray's case, because of the fact that he was the high-profile coach of one of the most successful basketball programs in Pennsylvania, it was our lead on Page One. This morning, Yarbray is back on Page One, this time with a headline noting that the case had been tossed.

We're not going to stop reporting when ch

arges are filed. We will continue to quote district attorneys and police chiefs when they talk about arrests. But we remain cognizant of the fact that these are only allegations, and if circumstances change, it is incumbent upon us to note those changes.

Even when it wakes us at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

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