Journalism

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley picks wrong case for anti-hate crime crusade

Detroit Free Press writer Rochelle Riley isn’t a detective. She just plays one in her column.

That’s evident from the strange suspension of belief underlying her Aug. 28, 2012 commentary  on a hazy Michigan State University off-campus assault still under investigation. [The column was taken offline later that week and isn’t in the paper’s web archive.]

Rochelle Riley

The East Lansing Police Department’s publicly voiced doubts about a sophomore’s account of an anti-Semitic attack outside a Saturday night party didn’t keep the self-described “Michigan force of nature” from criticizing the professionals and going with her gut.

For those who missed this story-within-a-story, involving a case that drew international coverage when a Nazi angle still was assumed, here’s a Riley vs. police recap using statements published Aug. 28-29:

Riley:  “The worst thing is that the East Lansing Police Department, whose lead investigator, Detective Jeff Murphy, and chief of police, Julie Liebler, could not be reached for comment, just issued a press release saying that what happened to Zachary Tennen is likely not a hate crime.” [Column posted at 4:36 p.m. Tuesday;  linked to from home page Wednesday morning.]

The State News: “Capt. Jeff Murphy of the East Lansing Police Department said the two witnesses . . . did not hear or see anything that could be construed as a hate crime. ‘They didn’t see Nazi or Hitler gestures,’ Murphy said. In addition, the witnesses could not confirm whether staples were involved.  ‘We just need a lot more to it before it comes to the level of a hate crime,’ he said.” [Update at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday by campus paper, which interviewed detective captain.]

Riley: “When someone asks whether you’re Jewish, salutes a dead megalomaniac who killed millions of Jews, then leaves you with your jaw broken and staples shot into your mouth, I’m pretty sure it’s a hate crime.” [Tuesday column]

Capt. Jeff Murphy: “[The suspect] paints a different picture of the motive for sure. With a hate crime, the motive is what’s in question. We have the victim’s family saying that he was assaulted because of his religion and that’s obviously a very serious thing. The problem is, right now, we don’t have anybody else who says that’s the case. In fact, we’ve got witnesses that say that was not at all the case. . . . And [there] definitely was not anyone stapling his mouth shut, as was earlier reported.” [Lansing State Journal, Wednesday afternoon.]

Riley: “If the police don’t believe that those hateful things happened, there’s this: Somebody knocked the kid out and stapled his mouth. That, detectives, is not self-defense, or involuntary. That is a hate crime.” [Tuesday column.]

Capt. Murphy: “People started putting out it was a hate crime, and nothing’s showing us it was a part of it.

“He said something to the effect that he’d been stapled, but there’s nobody that saw anything like that. And the witnesses that watched the assault happen didn’t see a stapler and indicated to us there was no way the suspect could have done anything with a stapler because it was one punch to the face and the suspect left the area. We haven’t determined how he got that piece of metal in his mouth. But it was not put there by the suspect.” [Free Press, Wednesday afternoon.]

Yes, writing a column about a developing story is tricky – but what was the rush to comment and where was the skepticism? (A stapler-carrying party guest, really?)

For a veteran journalist of 25 years and four metro dailies, Riley is mighty gullible and quick to conclude. It’s as though she never heard of parents falsely reporting a child-snatching, babysitters claiming an accident that didn’t happen as described, ambushed prostitution customers saying they were mugged or pummeled drug buyers filing a false police report.

When police say evidence suggests a beating wasn’t a hate crime, it may be a signal to wait rather than to slam them for “the worst thing.”

[This was first posted Aug. 29, 2012 as a Facebook Note.]

Epilogue: Ingham County’s prosecutor on Sept. 27, 2012 declined to charge the 18-year-old Farmington Hills man police say punched Zach. “There is no evidence that any ethnic/religious/racial bias was involved in this incident,” Stuart Dunnings III says in a statement reported by MLive. Even the family backed off, telling the prosecutor via an attorney that it “believes that justice will be best served by closing this investigation.”

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