Yale Murder Begs Ethics Questions

In announcing the arrest of a suspect in the murder of Yale University graduate student Annie Le on the morning of Sept. 17, New Haven Police Chief James Lewis did something I’ve never seen in a high-profile arrest announcement: He told a horde of reporters caught in a week-long national news frenzy that they had been presenting the story wrong.

“I think it’s important to know that this not about urban crime,” Lewis said. “It’s not about university crime. It’s not about domestic crime. It’s about an issue of workplace violence, which is becoming a growing concern around the country.”

Annie Le — a pharmacology graduate student and, as Chief Lewis said, “a woman of unlimited potential” — was killed a week ago, according to police by a 24-year-old lab technician named Raymond Clark. I live in New Haven, Connecticut, around the corner from Annie Le’s apartment. Ever since she was reported missing, my city has been swept up in a combination of local anxiety over an at-large killer and national fascination with an Ivy League killing. It was a version of what Pete Hamill calls “murder at a good address,” that irresistible formula for the news business. There were 21 murders in New Haven last year, and none of them brought the nearly two dozen satellite trucks from New York, Boston, and points beyond I counted on the way into police headquarters for the briefing from Chief Lewis.

All of this attention to the Le case, unfolding grim detail by grim detail for a week, provoked something here in New Haven that you don’t see much anymore in an age of media monopoly: old-fashioned competition between reporters and news organizations, chasing shards of fact and speculation, driven by a basic journalistic yearning to make sense of a senseless killing. The national press had some scoops, many fraudulent, like breathless reports of a manhunt that never happened. But the daily New Haven Register and the Hartford Courant — each recently decimated by layoffs — and the online New Haven Independent, with a staff too small to be decimated, worked their long-accumulated cop and Fed sources, instincts and good luck, piling detail on detail over the days leading up to Raymond Clark’s arrest. From the Register we learned that the cops were targeting a lab tech. From the Courant, that Clark was trapped by swipe-card records tracing his movements and Annie Le’s the day of the killing. From the Independent, the MySpace musings of the suspect’s fiancée, and the stunning accusation from a former girlfriend that he had sexually assaulted her in high school.

But embedded in these scoops were deep ethical issues — indeed, a sense of ethical boundaries at times pressed and eroded by a 24-hour demand for new information. In the New Haven Police Department briefing room, waiting for word of Clark’s arrest, some reporters quietly talked it over. Which leaked police hunches can be responsibly reported? What kind of contact can reporters initiate with social-network “friends” of a suspect or his fiancé? When was the right time to publish the suspect’s name, which had been leaked by police to trusted reporters for days?

WFSB, the local CBS affiliate, rushed out of the gate on that one with Clark’s name at least 12 hours before any official announcement that he was a “person of interest.” Others held back, going as close to the edge as they could without actually naming him, in some cases putting more than enough detail out for curious readers to make the ID. The online Independent held back even further, sticking with its practice of not naming suspects at all pre-arrest, even after Clark had been named at a press conference.

As it happens, in New Haven these are not abstract ethical debates. Nine years ago, another young and promising Yale student, Suzanne Jovin, was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant. In that case early police leaks and rushed media identification of a “person of interest” — a Yale lecturer, Jovin’s thesis advisor, who was never to be charged with the crime — figured significantly in a bungled investigation which has left Jovin’s murder unsolved to this day.

The biggest question of all on a high-profile murder, though, isthe story itself. How to tell it? How to make sense of the senseless? In the Annie Le case, some tabloid reports called it early: “unrequited romantic interest.” Many others — not just the tabloids — compared the Le case to the unsolved Jovin killing and wrote about perceptions of New Haven and crime.

By talking about workplace violence, Chief Lewis situated Annie Le’s killing on a different landscape entirely: among nearly 15,000 workplace homicides in the U.S. between 1992 and last year. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, workplace killings are now the fourth-highest source of deaths on the job, and violence on the job is so pandemic that a few years ago the FBI issued a report noting that workplace assault and murder “is now recognized as a specific category of violent crime.” Another New Havener — Laura Smith, the president of Local 34, the Yale clerical and technical workers’ union, of which Clark is a member — narrowed the focus even further: it’s about gender violence in the workplace and violence against women everywhere, she told reporters after the arrest. “This crime reminds us that women are not safe.”

When the indictment is unsealed, the leaks are over and the facts are in, Lewis and Smith may or may not turn out to be right. But they are asking reporters to so something important: advance the story past an arrest. If there is a second day, a second week, a second month to the story of a senseless murder, then context matters.