Let me start by saying, I hate writing this post. I hate it for several reasons. First, I don’t like unbiased editorializing as regards pending court cases. I’ve often had to fight against the out-of-control conjecture and vitriol that get inserted into emotional issues and cases. I will try to avoid conjecture and stick to the facts. I will limit my opinion to my area of expertise, news and PR analysis. Second, I don’t like what happens to normally rational people when they get on the internet. They do stupid things. I’m not keen to be the one to point those folks out.
So why write this? Because I DO BELIEVE that institutions, especially the media, need to be held accountable. I ALSO BELIEVE that justice thrives under a watchful eye. I’m just old fashioned that way. I want to add one more caveat. I don’t take a position on the allegations related to the case under discussion, only two small elements of the case. Those are 1) the way WBOY Channel 12 News decided to cover the case and 2) the pernicious nature of what is termed “Rape Culture.”
First, A few facts.
Brittany Keene (she willingly put her name into the public forum) is a young woman from West Virginia who filed a civil petition against John Wesley Hawkins, the Sheriff of Barbour County, West Virgina as well as the Barbour County Commission. These are the facts as best I can determine:
1) On May 11 of 2012, Keene filed a petition in Randolph County alleging a number of misconducts (assault, rape) by the Sheriff of Barbour County.
2) A hearing was scheduled for May 24, 2012, but that hearing was delayed until June 5th for a few reasons which seem reasonable at a quick glance.
3) On May 29, 2012, before the petition hearing took place, Keene was named in a sealed indictment and arrested for being in possession of stolen property and transferring stolen property (two guitars that went missing from a local church in March of 2012).
4) On June 5, 2012, Keene dropped her petition against the Sheriff.
Source for Above and further back information.
5) In August, the presiding judge dismissed the criminal case without prejudice. This means they can always go forward with the case in the future should they choose to do so.
So a quick recap. We have a very young woman, who alleges she was raped and assaulted by a police officer. Shortly after her allegation, she’s indicted under somewhat questionable circumstances. She drops her case. The county drops it’s case. There does not appear to have been any subsequent investigation by local or state authorities into Keene’s allegations. I’m not a journalist, but if I were, pretty much anything that happened after this point, I would spend some serious time doing research and writing a good, solid story. So let’s continue and see what happens and why I’m so mad.
6) July 18, 2013, Keene and her lawyers file a complaint against the Sheriff and the Barbour County Commission.
7) Channel 12, WBOY, Morgantown W.V., The News who “works” for you, posts this story:
A Barbour County woman has filed a lawsuit in U.S. Court in Elkins against the Barbour County Commission and Barbour County Sheriff John Hawkins, in both a personal and professional capacity. [So far so good. This is correct.]
The suit, filed by Brittany Mae Keene, 19, accuses Sheriff Hawkins of charges named in a 15 count indictment, including unlawful arrest, excessive force, civil conspiracy, and sexual assault. Keene was indicted in May 2012 on a felony charge of receiving stolen property and a misdemeanor charge of transferring stolen property. [Wow, that’s a heck of a transition. Given the juxtaposition of these two things, one might infer that she filed the lawsuit after she was indicted as some sort of desperate attempt to keep herself out of trouble.]
Keene stole two guitars from Haven of Hope Church, according to court documents. Keene pawned one of them and gave the other one to another person. [This is about the worst possible way to phrase this. Basically says she’s guilty. Professional PR opinion here, this is either bad journalism or bad writing, which is tantamount to bad journalism. I would note that we are two paragraphs into a story about a lawsuit alleging a police officer sexually assaulted a teenager and we have given as much ink to a year-old dismissed allegation as we have to the current lawsuit. It must get better, right?]
In June 2012, Barbour County Prosecuting Attorney Leckta Poling and Circuit Judge Alan Moats recused themselves from working with Keene’s case after she claimed in a local newspaper that her arrest was retaliation for improper conduct accusations she made against Sheriff Hawkins. [Note how this sentence is constructed differently. “She claimed” comes first. Could have been: “Sherriff Hawkins raped her, she claimed...” You get the idea. See why the sentence in the previous paragraph was so bad? Ok. So that was one more paragraph about a dismissed case. We’ll get the lawsuit part. I’m just sure of it.]
In August 2012, Keene asked Judge John Henning to dismiss her indictment. Judge Henning dismissed the case without prejudice. [Ok. this is factual, but same problem. Sentence could have read the other way. “Judge Hennings dismissed her indictment after Keene requested...” It’s the little subtleties that demonstrate bias.]
Sheriff Hawkins told WBOY on Monday that just as he has done in the past he denies Keene’s claims and will defend himself in court and not in the media. [Good for him. I would advise him to do the same thing. No sense giving up the sound bite. I can’t wait to see what Keene has to say. …waiting…waiting…Oh I see, the reporter either didn’ t ask or failed to note that she asked and didn’t get a response.]
Keene’s court filings indicate that she demands a trial by jury in the case. [Yeah, Thank goodness. The last sentence is a fact about the pending case. So, to sum up: that’s three sentences about the lawsuit vs. four about a previously dismissed case and one that includes the defendant’s statement.]
Wait there’s more. Remember the picture I showed you above? Guess what picture Channel 12 used in the article and on their Facebook page? Here it is:
What do you think was the response?
Ricky Says: Just another dope head
Duane Says: Sure looks to me like an upstanding member of society in this pic…Guess that means we have to believe her story. [I believe he is being sarcastic]
Cheryl Says: Are you freakin’ kidding me!? Someone needs to drop her off on an island somewhere, all alone.
Dennis Says: Wonder where she’s going to steal next to get money for a lawyer ? What a waste of tax payer money. What a loser!
Linda Says: Maybe everybody including the media should just stay out if it. That is the problem. People who don’t know what is going on trying to blame and convict someone without knowing all the evidence
You get the idea. I cherry-picked these comments because I think the article begged for them the way it was written and because of the picture used. “Rape Culture” amongst the general population is bad enough; but, it shouldn’t be fueled by the media, and that’s what happened here. I didn’t provide full names for comments. These people did comment publicly, so you can verify what I’ve written. There are also a few positive comments toward Brittany Keene and a few supportive comments for the Sherriff. Good for them. Everyone needs friends. Feel free to read them all on the Channel 12 Facebook Page
Some Wrap Up
I question whether the reporter in this case read the entire legal document on which she was reporting. She’s had four days since the June 18th filing to get a story together. Maybe she’ll do a better job in the next iteration. But for now, I’d love to know:
1) Why would you fail to seek comments from the Barbour County Commission? The fact that the county is named seems like a big deal to me. They are going to be dragged into a case that has all the hallmarks of a nation news story. If comment was sought and declined, why not note it?
2) Where is the comment from Brittany Keene? Did you ask for one? Or maybe a different picture, since she supplied one to a local news outlet last year?
3) Why would you fail to mention the lawsuit claims FIVE other witnesses who will testify to similar assaults? See below. Maybe they are all lying, but that sure would make me report this story a little bit differently.
Female #1: Defendant Hawkins threatened to institute criminal charges against a female, approximately eighteen years old, unless she performed oral sex on him, and the female unwillingly complied by performing oral sex on Defendant Hawkins in a bathroom located in the Barbour County Courthouse;
Female #2: Defendant Hawkins arrested female #2, approximately sixteen years of age, and threatened to proceed forward with the prosecution unless the female performed oral sex on him and the female unwillingly performed oral sex on Defendant Hawkins in his police cruiser; Defendant Hawkins warned her to say nothing or he would hurt her;
Female #3: Defendant Hawkins forced female #3 to perform oral sex on him in exchange for drugs he obtained from the police evidence room;
Female #4: Defendant Hawkins, while in uniform, handcuffed a nineteen year old female in the barn at the Barbour County Fairgrounds, performed various sex acts on her against her will, and in addition, forced her to have sex with him in a closet at his office at the Barbour County Courthouse;
Female #5: Defendant Hawkins handcuffed female #5 at the Barbour County shooting range and performed various sex acts on her against her will; Defendant Hawkins told her to keep her mouth shut or he would kill her; thereby unnecessarily, wantonly, and deliberately exerting excessive force on the person of helpless detainees, which conduct was subsequently ratified and approved by the County Defendant.
So, to sum up, I am not sure what’s going to happen with this case. What I am sure is that the local Channel 12 News needs to do a better job covering the case. I hope other news outlets will pay attention as well. I believe the truth will come out in the end, but sometimes it needs a little push. I hope people will refrain from attacking Brittany Keene during the process. If she’s making this all up, the court will figure that out. If not…I’d feel pretty bad calling someone who went through what she claims a dopehead and a loser.
This morning, two additional, far more balanced articles were released on the subject: