Foster: A story worth telling

Foster: A story worth telling

October 24th, 2010 by J. Todd Foster in Opinion Columns

This newspaper made a gut-wrenching and controversial decision to run a top-of-the-front-page article last Sunday stemming from jailhouse interviews with an accused killer.

Headlined "Henry: 'I snapped' after Strong asked for sex,'" the article was based on two interviews over nearly two hours with Antonio Henry, 25, a Chattanooga man charged with felony murder and especially aggravated robbery in the killing of the Rev. David Strong, pastor of St. Paul AME Church.

I am using this space to defend our decision, even though I know it won't change critics' minds.

In the voicemail words of one reader: "I am disgusted that you would allow a criminal like this young black man Mr. Henry, who murdered this pastor, to give his side of the story saying that this man asked for sex. Even if it's true, you should not have run it on the front page of the paper like this. A dead man cannot defend himself. I'm just appalled that you would allow this to be printed."

Henry's race is irrelevant, although a surprising number of our readers often invoke race when displeased with a story. Meanwhile, giving the other side of the story is a hallmark of good journalism. It is patently unfair to not tell that side on the same page where we have published numerous articles that detailed the heinous nature of the crime, as well as the charges against Henry and his 16-year-old cousin, Brendan Barnes.

Henry is far from innocent, and the article never implied he was. In jailhouse interviews with our reporter Chris Carroll, Henry places himself at the scene of the crime and included an admission of hitting the pastor in the head with a stick. He was caught five days later driving Strong's car.

But the extreme nature of the killing (the autopsy report showed at least 18 stab wounds) indicates overkill, or a crime of passion. That's where motive comes into play.

If Henry had snapped after unwanted sexual advances -- and our story never validated his comments -- and if it's true that Henry did not mean for Strong to die, then it could be the difference between life in prison or death row, a murder conviction or manslaughter.

Even if Strong were gay, and we certainly don't know that, he obviously didn't deserve to die. Unwanted sexual advances makes for a strong motive and can't be ignored, however, particularly when a top police officer is quoted in the article as saying, "The possibility existed that Reverend Strong was gay."

Henry and Barnes did not force their way into Strong's Glenwood home. The crime scene suggests they were allowed in, begging the question of why a pastor would allow into his home a man (Henry) with a lengthy criminal history and assorted mental illnesses?

These are issues worth public discussion. And if a criminal defendant is willing to tell his side of the story, it is incumbent upon us to let him.

The ethics code espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists implores journalists to "diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing."

It also urges journalists to "tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so" and to "support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."

By Thursday, there were 58 online comments on this article. Many of the comments were thoughtful and poignant. That an article could spark this much debate and discussion is a good thing and something that has happened all too infrequently with this newspaper.

"Great job, Mr. Carroll," one Web reader wrote. "Keep thinking outside the box. And good for you and the TFP for having the guts to print it."