Friday, January 3, 2014

The Erin Cox Case. Again.

Option #1: Curmie was snookered.

We need this guy on the case.
(Sorry, Cumberbatch fans.)
I wrote two stories (1, 2) about the Erin Cox case in Massachusetts. She, you may recall, was the high school volleyball player who was stripped of her team captaincy and suspended for five games for what she claimed was simply picking up a drunken friend at a party at which underage drinking occurred. I even nominated Principal Carla Scuzzarella for a Curmie Award. In fact, she was leading the voting when reader Renee provided a link that suggests that all of Ms. Cox’s allegations of mistreatment were, to coin a phrase, lies.

I know, I know, I was relying on reporting from sources like the Boston Herald and WBZ-TV. I ought to be able to trust them, but I should also know better. Indeed, even when the story spun by Cox and her opportunistic and quite possibly dishonest attorney Wendy Murphy began to unravel, I distrusted school authorities in general so much that I dismissed their claims of due process with a good deal of contempt. (I still don’t believe the denial of a zero tolerance policy, by the way.)

In other words, I was guilty of confirmation bias.

Or perhaps not.

Option #2: All those initial allegations were true.

The only evidence that they weren’t is one story in a monthly local free paper which has been repeated a couple of times but never independently confirmed by a news source you’ve ever heard of. One way or the other, that’s evidence of unethical journalism: either by the big media outlets who didn’t admit their mistake or by The Valley Patriot.

Let’s see: there’s a “handwritten letter to the court” which is quoted but not shown, nor is a link provided. “The officer who charged Cox with possession of alcohol was Boxford Police Officer Brian Neeley, the same officer who wrote the email to the North Andover Schools on her behalf.” So why did he write the e-mail? Moreover, as argued on the Stately McDaniel Manor site:
If we assume this reporting and anonymous “Valley Patriot sources” in the district court and law enforcement are accurate, there remain a number of perplexing questions. If [the Valley Patriot’s Tom] Duggan’s sources for this story do indeed come from the local court and law enforcement, they are not only violating the ethics of their positions, but likely, Massachusetts privacy laws relating to juveniles. This is an inherent problem of this sort of case. Pursuing facts that are hidden behind privacy walls requires someone to breach those walls, always unethically, usually illegally. One may argue that the public has a “right to know,” but there is no such “right” in the Constitution or elsewhere. This also raises the question about whether it is ethical for journalists to entice public employees to violate the public’s trust and even the law. After all, this is hardly an issue of national security or the betrayal of a vital public trust by a high governmental official. There is not a great deal of honor in whistleblowing in such cases.
In any reasonable interpretation of Duggan’s prose, the local police are saying that when [school district lawyer Geoffrey] Bok wrote that Cox was arrested, he was “not correct,” or in common, everyday English, he lied. Yet Duggan says that there is no evidence that Bok lied, citing the distinction I have drawn regarding physical custody arrests and citations. Apparently the local police think that distinction important and believe that Cox was not arrested. Because even a citation is actually an arrest, this would tend to support Murphy and the police, not Duggan or Bok.
Mike McDaniel concludes:
Regular readers know I am anything but a defender of the mainstream media. Perhaps they have not retracted their stories because they do not have definitive proof they were wrong. Can we believe Duggan’s anonymous sources? Perhaps. As I wrote, it would certainly not be unusual for any teenager in a difficult situation to present them self in the best possible light, even to lie. Perhaps Erin Cox did lie about this. Duggan certainly seems to believe that, but if he does have a copy of Cox’s handwritten “confession,” he is also sufficiently savvy not to publish it or to reveal from whom he received it. That could be legally expensive. It is possible, too, that the police and courts wanted that information leaked, so the leakers had nothing to fear, but that opens another can of ethical and legal worms, and arguably a larger and more convoluted can….
I’ll continue to dig toward a resolution I can report with confidence. Until then, you have all the facts I’ve been able to discover. I recommend that you, gentle readers, don’t hold your breath.
Apart from the fact that Curmie has a special affection for those who address their audience as “gentle readers,” I think McDaniel makes a lot of sense.

The fact is that these waters are very muddy indeed. Did the national and regional (i.e., Boston) media sensationalize the story and then abandon it when things got complicated? Of course. Was Cox in possession of alcohol? Perhaps. Did the school provide an appropriate hearing? Perhaps. Were Principal Scuzzarella’s actions worthy of a Curmie Award? If, but only if, the anonymous sources and reporting of a small-town free press are on the up and up. So whereas I urge you to vote for the 3rd Annual Curmies (nominees here; ballot in the upper right corner of this page), I don’t think it’s appropriate to vote for her (and I can’t remove her from the ballot): one of the cardinal principles of our justice system, after all, is the presumption of innocence. Ms. Scuzzarella might be guilty. “Might” isn’t good enough. And if she really did administer justice appropriately, then I apologize for saying otherwise.

Oh, and whatever is or is not true, Erin Cox is a kid. If she really was drinking, well, she wouldn’t exactly be the first teenager to do that. Her mother and lawyer may be irredeemable, but she isn’t. Let’s let her grow up and see what happens.

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