Of late, AJC.com and the pages of the printed version of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been filled with some horrible stories involving the treatment of children.
These stories have been painful to read and heartbreaking to cover. So it’s reasonable to ask:
Why do we write them?
Before I get to that answer, here’s a sad recollection of recent cases:
- Isabel Martinez stabbed each of her five children, killing four of them. When her husband tried to stop her, the Gwinnett County mother killed him. She then called 911, blaming a family friend for their deaths. Her daughter, the only family member to survive her attack, recounted the grisly episode to authorities. She said her mother didn’t cry or scream as she stabbed her family to death. More than a year after the July 2017 incident, Martinez pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to life in prison.
- In December, the bodies of two children were found buried behind their home in Effingham County. According to court testimony and other records, one of the children, Mary Crocker, lived in a dog pen while being starved to death. Her brother, JR was regularly beaten, kept in a cage and starved, too. Each was 14 when they died. Charged in the case: the children’s father, Elwyn Crocker Sr.; his wife, Candice Crocker; her brother, Tony Wright; her mother, Kim Wright; and Kim Wright’s boyfriend, Roy Anthony Prater.
- Eman and Tiffany Moss kept their 10-year-old daughter, Emani, confined to her room without food. During that time Moss fed and cared for her own two children who lived with Emani in an apartment near Lawrenceville. Emani died in 2013. Her father pleaded guilty and testified against his wife. He said the two stuffed the girl’s emaciated body in a trash can and set it on fire, unsuccessfully attempting to incinerate her body. Tiffany Moss was found guilty and sentenced to death.
- The parents of a Newton County 2-week-old, Caliyah McNabb, reported the baby missing in October of 2017. Her body was soon discovered in a drawstring Nike bag in the woods near the family’s home. She had a fractured skull. Caliyah was likely dead by the time her father, Christopher McNabb, pleaded for the community’s help in finding her. He and Cortney Bell were found guilty earlier this month in the baby’s death. They have another child who lives with a relative.
Why do we go through so much effort to greet you in the morning with such horrific tragedy? And why do our readers find themselves presented with such gruesome accounts?
The AJC’s legal affairs reporter, Bill Rankin, has a strong point of view.
“We cover the deaths of children – particularly the intentional killing of children – because they are the most vulnerable and innocent members of our society,” he said.
“We know how much more in life was in store for that child – what could have been explored, discovered, enjoyed, experienced. To see someone’s life taken at such an early age and missing out on the future they deserved is particularly hard to accept.”
Shannon McCaffrey, one of our editors who oversees much of this coverage, believes that as citizens we should be aware of these cases.
“The accountability of the guilty is a key part of why we write these stories,” she said. “So many crimes involving children happen behind closed doors and in secret. I also try to think about how they provide some voice to the victims.”
Our journalists also pay a personal emotional toll as they document these stories; they are parents and citizens too.
“The recent death-penalty trial I covered against Tiffany Moss was absolutely the most difficult one I’ve ever covered,” said Rankin, who has reported on Georgia’s legal system for a quarter-century. “When Emani’s body was found, she weighed only 32 pounds.”
“There was testimony during the trial that showed Tiffany Moss texted her husband at work one day that she had a chocolate craving. She asked him to bring some cookie dough home,” Rankin recalled. “The thought of the smell of baked cookies wafting through that apartment as that little girl was dying of starvation was unimaginably difficult.”
During one critical moment of the trial, Rankin demonstrated the duty he feels to document such tragedy.
The medical examiner was one of the last witnesses, and Rankin dreaded the testimony because his experience told him it would include autopsy photos, critical but unbearable evidence.
“Some people in the courtroom left before they were shown,” Rankin said. “Others raced out, their hands over their mouths, as the photos were shown on a large screen on the courtroom wall. Some jurors wept.”
Rankin stayed firmly anchored in his seat. This was a death-penalty trial, and he had a job to do.
“I felt like I needed to stay in the courtroom,” he said. “Those photos of that emaciated young girl were ghastly. I will never forget them.”
Often the details of our reporting can point out deficiencies or shortcomings in the systems that are meant to protect children.
Joshua Sharpe, who has covered the Effingham County case, uncovered such a flaw.
“Had we not obtained Division of Family and Children Services records, we couldn’t have revealed that, in 2017, DFCS failed to look into a brutal report of abuse in the home,” he said.
“At the time of the report, authorities believe JR was already dead, but Mary was still alive. What if DFCS had gone to check on her? The agency decided to change the policy that led workers to dismiss the abuse report.”
We ask a lot of journalists to stick with these stories – to dig through records, to sit through legal proceedings and to talk to family members and investigators.
Alexis Stevens, who covered the Newton County case, is often asked how she handles reporting on such tragic stories.
“I don’t have a great answer,” she said. “But I like to think that if even one person reads about Caliyah and finds themselves in an abusive relationship or suffering from mental illness or drug addiction, and that baby’s death is a wake-up call, then it was worth it.”
“Maybe we’re saving another child from the same fate.”
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