The truth is sometimes muddy. But clean it up too much and the result isn’t clean truth; it’s a half-truth.
The L.A. Times learned this the hard way today, when a judge rejected an inmate’s claim of innocence — based on facts that the newspaper had known, according to former L.A. Times reporter Chuck Philips, but deliberately chose not to publish.
And why not report the facts that the judge found so important? They were too complicated, Philips told Patterico.com, and “muddied up” the front-page story touting the inmate’s innocence.
But including facts that dispute a story’s central premise isn’t “muddying up” a story — it’s “reporting the whole truth.” And omitting such facts can’t easily be justified by “news judgment” — not when these same facts turn out to be central to a judge’s decision.
Here are the muddy facts:
The Los Angeles Times reports that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has rejected as “entirely unbelievable” the alibi of convicted murderer Waymond Anderson, whose claims of innocence were given splashy front-page treatment by former L.A. Times reporter Chuck Philips in January 2007. (Full disclosure: Anderson’s prosecutor is my supervisor. I have not spoken to her about the case.) Patterico.com has learned that the very facts that caused the judge to disbelieve Anderson’s alibi were known to Philips and his editors before Philips advocated Anderson’s innocence on the front page of The Times.
In a nutshell, Philips admitted to me that, at the time he wrote his original story promoting Anderson’s alibi:
- Philips knew Anderson had contradicted his alibi in numerous tape-recorded statements to the police.
Regarding Anderson’s explanation for why he had made these statements, Philips said: “There were a lot of things he said that sounded crazy.”
- Anderson had told Philips outlandish tales about the alleged “real killer” that Philips didn’t believe.
Specifically, Anderson said that the man who had framed him had also killed legendary rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur — and that the man had confessed these murders to Anderson in calls made while Anderson was in prison. Regarding these stories, Philips told me: “A lot of things he came up with, I didn’t believe. He had a lot of things about the Biggie murder and this and that.”
Despite these reasons to question Anderson’s credibility, Philips and his editors consciously decided not to report these facts — because, he said, they would make the story too complicated. Characters would have to be introduced, such as the “real killer” and others who had been involved. Anderson’s elaborate explanation for why he contradicted his alibi to police would have to be explained. All of this, Philips told me, “muddied up” the story too much.
But it turned out that the judge hearing Anderson’s bid for innocence was able to understand these facts very easily. In fact, they turned out to be the reason that he denied Anderson’s habeas corpus petition today. The court found it “totally incredible that the defendant would not be able to state that he was in Mississippi . . . when he was interviewed by the police after being arrested.” The judge found Anderson’s alibi unbelievable, and described Anderson as an “admitted perjurer” based on Anderson’s testimony in a deposition that I told you about last month.
Interestingly, Philips now shares the judge’s view of Anderson’s general credibility. Philips believes that Anderson “is a liar” because of accusations Anderson has since made about Philips — including a claim that Philips smuggled threatening messages to Anderson on behalf of Suge Knight. “Waymond Anderson turned out to be a huge, huge disappointment to me,” Philips told me. “All that stuff he was saying was all lies.”
But, Philips said, he still believes Anderson was innocent of the murder. “I did things for his family. I helped him out doing legal things for his case. . . . I believed he was innocent and several people I talked to believed he was innocent.”
Evidently the judge doesn’t agree.
But then, he knows the facts that L.A. Times readers were never told . . . until now.
P.S. I plan to have more details regarding my interview with Philips, on this issue and others, in future posts. Stay tuned.