No News Is Bad News (Coverage) Why Isn’t A First-Degree Murder Acquittal Worthy Of Media Attention?

By Ray Hartmann
St. Louis Magazine
October 2009

On August 17, 2009, a shackled Devon Octavis Williams was led into a St. Louis courtroom facing first-degree murder charges that would have earned him a lifetime stay—without probation or parole—in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Three days later, he walked out of that courtroom into the fresh air on Market Street, embraced by tearful family members, as free and innocent as you and I. A circuit court jury had acquitted Williams of all charges.

This doesn’t happen every day.

Once upon a time, there was a word that described events of significance that didn’t "happen every day." That word was "news."

But today, unless one considers 1¼ inches of small type in the Post-Dispatch to constitute "news," the journalistic rules of engagement are quite different. The entire justice system in the city of St. Louis, and many other parts of the area, operates pretty much in a news vacuum.

This is not without consequence. Sometimes a news story carries meaning far beyond the immediate area in which it occurred. Sometimes that story might reveal truths—or dispel myths—or at least shed light on unknown realities that are important to the region at large.

The acquittal of Devon Williams is one such story.

It begins much like most horrific crime stories: sadly unremarkable.

Murders like the one for which Williams was tried are common in the city, particularly in north St. Louis. The public and news media are as numb to them as the lady who told police she heard four or five shots outside her door and thought nothing of it because it happened so often.

In this case, a young man named Albert James Thomas had lost his life on June 16, 2008, to bullets in an alley not far from that lady’s home, just another tragic statistic in the night. No doubt Mr. Thomas deserved a better fate—and certainly his life shouldn’t be devalued because he didn’t come from a nicer neighborhood—but the media might rationalize its indifference on the basis of the fact that such murders occur a dozen or more times a month.

The disposition of this case was another matter. And the "news" media missed a pretty good story by overlooking it.

"They got the wrong guy," says defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, who represented Williams, who was 17 at the time of his arrest.

"The investigation was awful, the lineups were tainted, they did no ballistics, and I had evidence that he wasn’t even around that day [at the site of the murder].

"The cops blew it, and the prosecution didn’t know which way it was going."

If those fighting words from the area’s preeminent defense counsel aren’t "news," then maybe this comment—to us—from Shirley Rogers, chief trial assistant to the city’s circuit attorney and a 30-year veteran of the office, might have been:

"I am 100,000 percent certain that [Williams] is the right guy, that he was good for this murder," Rogers says. "We would not have prosecuted the case if we didn’t feel that way. This is serious business, and we take our responsibility to get it right very seriously."

She added that this case, like most, was based on eyewitness testimony and not the sort of scientific evidence that the CSI shows of the world have conditioned many jurors to expect. That, she said, can be a real challenge to prosecutors, although she proudly claims the circuit attorney has had a 94 percent conviction rate on homicides since 2005 (still another reason this acquittal should be newsworthy).

Rosenblum fires back that this is "a dangerous comment by a prosecuting attorney, because nobody can be 100,000 percent sure, especially in a case like this." He adds: "She wasn’t in the courtroom, didn’t watch a minute of testimony.

"To make that statement without having any personal experience at the trial is irresponsible."

Doesn’t the media like drama anymore? You can’t ask for much more public conflict between a top defense attorney and a top prosecutor, can you?

In fairness, the media didn’t bother to ask.

It’s noteworthy that Rosenblum didn’t seek publicity for his victory. This column came about out of my curiosity over how the headline "Acquittal in murder case" wasn’t itself a curiosity to the local media. No press release was issued, so no news coverage ensued.

It’s a sign of the times that isn’t lost on Rosenblum.

"When I started practicing law 26 years ago, there was gavel-to-gavel coverage on the front page of the daily newspaper for murder trials like this one," says Rosenblum. "Now it’s a little blurb buried inside the paper, if that."

In days of old, the St. Louis dailies buzzed around police headquarters, chasing all kinds of leads with all kinds of sources. "Police reporters," as this near-extinct species was known, were among the most important and respected assets of the newsroom.

Today, the Post-Dispatch no longer even has an office in police headquarters, having quietly vacated the premises during the tenure of ex-Chief Joe Mokwa. Not surprisingly, if one inquires about speaking to current Chief Dan Isom about something like the Williams case, one is politely invited to communicate only by email.

For the record, through email, the police were no more chastened by the acquittal than the prosecutor.

"We’re disappointed in the verdict, obviously," said police spokesperson Erica Van Ross, in a written response to me. "Unfortunately the jury saw the case differently than we do. We cannot discuss details of this investigation as there have always been two suspects and the person who investigators believe is suspect number two has been identified, but no warrants have been issued.

"We will continue to seek justice for the family of Albert Thomas in that regard."

Stay tuned. Or if you’re in the St. Louis media, don’t.

These aren’t the good old days, so the police don’t feel compelled to defend their activities, even after a jury sees a case "differently" than they do. Regardless of whether a case like this grabs the public’s fancy, the news media should entertain legitimate questions about police work, and the ones in this case were legitimate enough that the jury acquitted the person who authorities wanted to send away for life.

Rosenblum spoke of how his client had no prior criminal record and claimed not to be a gang member, even though police had considered this a gang-related murder and had shown a lineup exclusively of alleged gang members to eyewitnesses.

"They claimed Devon was a ‘documented gang member,'" Rosenblum says. "What’s a documented gang member? Joining a gang isn’t like joining a country club, where there’s a record of your dues. How can they say they document this?"

That was part of Rosenblum’s case before the jury, as was his claim that the photo lineup shown to eyewitnesses was tainted by the fact that names and nicknames of the suspects were visible underneath their pictures, raising the possibility that those witnesses might have pointed to someone because his name was rumored to be involved, rather than through true visual identification.

Williams wasn’t actually arrested until a month after the shooting, and witnesses described the shooter as having short hair. Rosenblum presented testimony from relatives that Williams wore dreadlocks at the time of the shooting and had cut his hair between then and the time he was arrested.

That’s a level of detail that isn’t generally afforded murder suspects in the inner city, another point of interest that the media might have noted, were it alive today. Having Scott Rosenblum in his corner may well be why Williams is a free man today.