Photo withheld

Accused: Antonio Cardenas-Rico

This post has been updated and corrected to reflect the fact that WSB-TV also blurred the photo of Antonio Cardenas-Rico.

I covered the stabbing deaths of two children Thursday, and immediately faced one of those journalistic conundrums.  Perplexing as that was, it was compounded by the fact that my competitors handled it completely differently than I did.

Gwinnett police arrested a guy early Thursday morning.  They announced the arrest, and a news conference in a press release.  Within the press release was this plea:  Please don’t publish / broadcast the mug shot of the suspect.

Thankfully, I don’t cover crime much anymore.  But back in the day, we took requests like this very seriously.  As in most such cases, Gwinnett cops told us that they needed to use the mug shot in a photo lineup.  By publishing the mug shot, they argue, the value of the photo lineup — presented to witnesses to verify the identity of the bad guy — becomes worthless.

Here’s the problem:  Police overplay this “we don’t want you to harm the investigation” card constantly. They use it as an excuse to withhold basic information about crimes.  Lately, cops have used it to withhold the identity of those arrested — public information which falls within the “right to know” realm of a free society.  “Because the investigation is ongoing, we can’t answer” basic questions, they say.  In so doing, they overlook the fact that every criminal investigation is “ongoing” up to the moment that the alleged bad guy’s case is adjudicated.  It’s a blanket excuse for cops to clam up.  And reporters rarely challenge it.

Nobody in the news media wants to harm a criminal investigation.  When a case is less than 24 hours old — as was the case when Gwinnett police arrested Antonio Cardenas-Rico Thursday morning on two counts of murder — the “you’ll harm the investigation” argument has much more credibility.

Murdered: 3 year old Bradley Garcia and 1 year old Edward Garcia (front left, center)

Amazingly, much of the Atlanta news media made a swift decision to disregard Gwinnett County’s request to withhold the image of Cardenas-Rico.  WXIA and WSB-TV were, to my knowledge, the sole exceptions.

Gwinnett PD hurt its own case by misleading reporters who asked if Cardenas-Rico would have a first-appearance in Magistrate Court Thursday.  There would be no appearance, a spokesman said emphatically.  To their credit, WSB/AJC staffed the 1pm Magistrate court session anyway.  Sure enough, Cardenas-Rico showed up, along with Gwinnett cops.  WSB got the only video of the court appearance, and the AJC got photos.  Once that happened, the AJC didn’t hesitate to use Cardenas-Rico’s image.  WSB hesitated.

Perhaps the AJC felt that the public court appearance, and Cardenas-Rico’s mugshot on the Gwinnett Sheriff’s website, put the suspect’s image irretrievably into the public realm.  Perhaps they felt the police department’s duplicity killed the credibility of its request to withhold the image.  I might have made the same arguments.

I felt a counter-argument was equally strong:  The image of the bad guy doesn’t give the public any useful, vital information.  Our free-society interests aren’t served by going all freedom of the press! on a mug shot. Yes, the public has a fascination with mug shots — and in this case, it has an understandable interest in seeing the alleged face of evil.

But I didn’t want to be the media outlet that undermined an investigation into the murders of two tiny children.  And I didn’t want to do it simply because my competition made a decision to do it.  At least, not right away.

Knowing that the AJC was showing the mug shot on its web site, I called the Gwinnett police spokesman late in the afternoon.  I squawked at him about his handling of the court appearance question.  He continued to plead his case to withhold the mug shot.

The blurred mug shot of Cardenas-Rico

His case wasn’t very compelling, but he was emphatic.  When police officers aren’t acting like dipshits — and Gwinnett’s duplicity seemed to be a communication error as much as anything —  I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, and yield to their professional judgment about crime fighting.  They’re the experts on that stuff, not me.

(And it turned out the investigation was still in a very dynamic state.  By Saturday, police had cleared Cardenas-Rico and arrested another suspect.)

Based on my recommendation, WXIA chose the route of caution and blurred the photo of Cardenas-Rico.

A day later, I had a phone conversation with a Gwinnett investigator who said:  I don’t know why y’all did that.  It was up on the AJC’s site all day.

This entry was posted in AJC, WSB, WXIA on by .

About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

10 thoughts on “Photo withheld

  1. Spacey

    Only AJC posted it.
    WSB-TV blurred his face in the court video and did not post his mugshot until the Police Department cleared it.

  2. Matt Stevens

    Wow. I wonder how those Gwinnett guys even manage to get dressed in the morning. Why would they arrest a guy and bring him to court if the case was so thin that it could be undermined in a day? Ever hear of charging him with spitting on the sidewalk or something just to hold him for awhile? WTF. From the media standpoint, no one really did anything wrong. However, if my station had been made to look bad by those idiot cops, I’d be all over them as far as the mistakes they made and what the possible consequences might be. No mercy at all after that crap.

  3. Runner1

    FYI – WSB did not show his face. AJC did. WAGA did. WSB blurred the court video until Friday, late in the investigation.


    We are not agents for the police department. If they could show us real public harm or safety would come by running his photo, then it would have been worth considering.

    But as happens often police don’t want the photo used citing how it may hurt the case but they refused to provide any specific info.

    And in fact in this case I clearly had no impact based on the outcome.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      I would beg to differ on the “cheap shot” characterization. If any action typifies the (thankfully, exceedingly rare) dipshit behavior of cops, it’s the Katharine Johnston case.

  5. Sam

    I knew that would be your comeback line.
    I beg to differ. The point of the whole thing is that you injected that very serious matter into an irrelevant argument about whether a police PIO/Department was giving you the run around. It was an unnecessary slam is the point.
    If the state of reporter/PIO relations is at its poorest state (which I believe you’ve previously stated), then look no further than yourself.

  6. Mike Daly

    First of all, Sam, it’s not an irrelevant matter. It is important whether the police are giving anyone the run around or not because there’s a trust issue. Gwinnett has asked for trust from the media and received it on many occasions. Sure there are plenty of arguments both ways, and the media isn’t always helpful, responsive or responsible. But telling the media a court appearance won’t take place when it is actually going to take place is a lie. That is relevant.

    And why are your biting Doug’s head off over the mention of the Kathryn Johnston case? He made a distinction between what happened there and what happened here. He said THIS was a simple communications error and to not get this confused with the type of police mishandling of a case like the Johnston case. And it was a good thing he mentioned this because there are plenty who would lump these into the same category, which they are not. Call it a point of clarification.

    Doug was the one who DIDN’T publish the photo. DID NOT. What don’t you get? There were two kids murdered and he opted to go real safe with this one and he was lied to or at least “mis-communicated” to.

  7. Sam

    Why am I biting Doug’s head off? You’ve got to be kidding me.
    Again, and please listen this time, the Kathryn Johnston matter and the term “dipshit” was a slap that went too far in terms of what was being discussed/argued. The court appearance info is one thing. I said the Johnston matter wasn’t relevant to the discussion, and its not.
    I get it. I don’t think you do Mike.

    1. live apt fire Post author

      At the risk of extending this back-and-forth beyond its worth, I’ll add: In order for my hyperlink to be a “cheap shot,” then a person or group of people would have to be offended by it. I don’t know of a single honest cop who wouldn’t agree that the cops in the Johnston case exhibited behavior describable as “dispshit” or something synonymous. So I rule out that I’m offending the vast majority of police officers who behave honorably.

      Are you saying I’m offending PIOs? The link references extreme police behavior, not PIO behavior. So, count me among those who aren’t smart enough to get your point.

      That said, I welcome your viewpoint. Thanks for reading the blog.


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