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The Murder of an Assistant U.S. Attorney
Highlights the Unfairness of Intense Public Scrutiny of Crime Victims and their Families


Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2003

On December 4th, authorities discovered the body of Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna in a Pennsylvania creek. Luna had been repeatedly stabbed and left to drown in the icy waters.

The death itself is a horrible tragedy. But the coverage of the ensuing investigation highlights the troubling nature of press coverage of crime generally.

Crime is a matter of the most intense public concern. But very often, the lives of victims and their families are also subject to public scrutiny, and for reasons having nothing to do with society's legitimate interest in maintaining public order.

The Nature of the Public's Legitimate Interest in Crime

Crime is very much the public's business. Our tax dollars fund the entire justice system, from the police to courts to prisons. We pay the salaries of the prosecutors and, in many cases, those of the defense lawyers, too.

Whether or not we prosecute a crime is a matter vested exclusively with the executive branch of the government, and a decision one way or another is virtually immune from challenge. Such extraordinary power must be carefully watched, and a vigorous press is necessary to ensure that the power is wisely used.

But what is it, exactly, that renders public these often private encounters? Part of the answer, of course, is that we all have a need for self-preservation, and so we need to know who to protect ourselves from.

But the public's legitimate concern extends beyond that.

The first domestic task of government is to maintain order. Before the rise of the nation state, a ruler's legitimacy hinged mainly on his ability to protect a nation's borders and maintain peace within them. Criminal prosecutions were initiated in the Queen's name precisely to drive home this point: she was the source of good order, and was therefore entitled to rule.

And if the ruler can ensure order (and justice), then there is no need for score settling. The deeply rooted desire for vengeance is always a grave threat to peace. But if the monarch can bring your assailant to justice - and, just as important, can punish you if you try to do it in her stead- the streets are far less likely to run with blood.

The same is no less true today, as we are reminded every time we hear the name of a criminal case. Criminal cases ares initiated in the name of the state (or, in some states, in the name of "the people").

Our collective interest, then, is in ensuring that lawlessness is not permitted. Has the law been broken? By whom? What is the government doing about it? These are the questions to which citizens have a right to demand answers. But that does not mean the public's right to know extends to every conceivable question about a crime victim and his or her life.

The Victim's Role

Crime victims have an uneasy relationship to the public's interest in crime. On the one hand, they are inextricably linked to the crime, and often the most important part of the prosecution's case. That, in fact, has been part of the problem -- historically, victims have too often been treated as tools of the prosecution, rather than as citizens meriting special attention.

But however they are treated by the government, most victims are simply innocents who have had their privacy and peace disrupted - sometimes trivially, sometimes tragically. Worse, their connection to the undeniably public world of crime comes about because the criminal decided it would.. Anyone who's ever been involved in a rape prosecution knows how acutely the victim feels the investigation and trial to be, in some sense, a continuation of the crime itself.

Public Crime, Private Victims

Sometimes the media is respectful of these realities. They never name children who are crime victims, and almost never name the victims of sexual assault. Such victims are widely regarded as more vulnerable, more deserving of privacy, than others. And the same is no less true of their families, whose privacy is no less invaded - what parent needs to hear the name of her violated child repeated endlessly on the nightly news?

Some crime victims trumpet their status. Maybe they just want their fifteen minutes of fame. A few actually want to help by going public - to show, for example, that it's possible to survive and thrive after a terrible ordeal. But these are all choices. You can't stop Diane Sawyer from calling, but you don't have to answer the phone.

Still, some crime victims and families, who might have chosen to remain anonymous, have no choice. When the D.C. area was plagued by the sniper shootings last fall, the victims' lives were reported on extensively. Most were like the rest of us -- ordinary, private citizens, going about their ordinary, private lives -- when two murderous thugs chose them for death and, apparently, for publicity as well.

The coverage itself was, of course, completely benign. If one of the sniper shooting victims cheated on his taxes, or had a drinking problem, we never heard about it. The coverage was intended solely to honor the victims, and the facts were chosen accordingly. But in other criminal cases, coverage of the victims is not always similarly beneficent.

Jonathan Luna and the Problem of Publicity

The problem is that once the decision is made to cover the victim instead of the crime, the story is not always so easily controlled. Such is the case with Jonathan Luna, an Assistant U.S. Attorney who devoted himself to maintaining the very order that was violated when he was murdered.

The first press reports following discovery of Luna's body involved endless speculation that his murder involved the very case he was then prosecuting. When that didn't wash, the press moved on to other cases he had handled.

But eventually, as more information came to light - information about the victim himself - the story grew less wholesome. And recent information strongly suggests that the ultimatee story of Luna's demise will be something more sordid than first we thought.

Luna, of course, is dead. So the coverage affects, not him, but the family and friends he left behind. Whatever he did in his private life is now exposed to public view, and solely because of the vicious act of another.

There will probably be some cautionary tale to be wrung from the details of this murder. But it is unlikely to be anything new, or to suggest some way of protecting ourselves we hadn't already intuited. The story will play out, in other words, as entertainment, little more. And that is shockingly unfair to Luna's survivors, who never chose to be players in a public display.

When we expose crime victims' lives to public scrutiny, whether those lives are blameless or otherwise, we allow criminals to arrogate to themselves the right to decide who will be subject to the glare of publicity and who will not. That exposure may sell newspapers, but rarely if ever will it serve the legitimate public interest in crime.

When it comes to crime victims - not just children, not just victims of sexual assaults - the less said, the better.

Barton Aronson is an attorney in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and an Assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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