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Understanding a child’s death requires naming names

Thursday, June 26, 2008 | 7:32 p.m. CDT; updated 4:30 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear Reader:

Cortez Johnson died Wednesday morning. He died too young.

It’s outrageous when any 2-year-old dies, for any reason. Police believe Cortez’s death is related to the treatment received at the hands of his parents.

We need to know Cortez. We need to understand this child’s short life and the circumstances around his death. As citizens, we have a responsibility to his memory.

Imagine, then, if we didn’t even know his name.

On Wednesday, that’s exactly how our Police Department intended to handle his death. The first release to the news media, at 2:35 p.m., didn’t mention Cortez’s name. Missourian reporter Daniel Shar inquired. Capt. Brad Nelson said the department wasn’t releasing that bit of information. Shar said he asked why. Nelson didn’t provide a reason.

Missourian public safety editor Katherine Reed followed up with Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner, who told her he thought the name might have been withheld because the victim was a juvenile.

That might have been a point of discussion. But Cortez was dead.

No one can harm him anymore.

So it was good to see that the department eventually found the wisdom to change its stance. By Thursday morning, when I read the story, this boy had become a name and not an anonymous number. The article centered on the search for Horace Johnson, Cortez’s father.

As an editor, though, I wasn’t satisfied, because the name of Cortez’s mother was missing: “Johnson and the boy’s mother — whose name is being withheld because of her status as a potential witness ...”

Why would that matter? If Horace Johnson is a suspect, protecting the mother’s name would have little effect. They had been living together, after all. I wish Missourian staff had changed the unattributed passive to the accountable active: Police refused to release the name.

Later Thursday, Cortez’s mom, Keyonda Lumpkin, was arrested in connection with the death.

Police have no legal right to withhold these names. The media, or anyone else in the community, can request them. Police also know the game — that when push comes to shove, a letter of request must be written and presented to the department. It has three business days to respond, according to state law.

The assumption is one of secrecy, not openness.

To what end?

Tom


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