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Guilty until disproven innocent
by Nathan Orme
Nov 29, 2008 | 456 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Being roused from sleep by a work-related phone call is nothing new to me, but this week’s communique was more significant than most.

It was Wednesday morning at about 8:30 a.m. I can sleep that late and still make it to work within an hour, and since my day usually lasts until after 7 p.m. I can justify it. Normally one of my reporting minions calls or sends me a text message (hey, it’s the 21st century!) to check on an assignment or tell me that an assignment has fallen through. This time, though, diligent young reporter Sarah Cooper sent me a text message to inform me about the press conference regarding the arrest of a suspect in the Brianna Denison murder case. Instead of responding and going back to sleep for a few minutes, I was wide awake.

Nine months ago, I was at the press conference when the Reno Police informed us that the young woman’s body had been found. It was pretty intense, even though most of us in the room knew before the words were spoken that the body discovered in south Reno was hers. This time, I decided it was someone else’s turn to cover the announcement. Distancing myself from the event with a television just seemed like a better idea this time.

After telling us about the suspect, his camoflage of normalcy, the DNA evidence and suspicious nature of his activities, the police and prosecuting officials patted themselves on the back profusely for catching this person who had held the community breathless for nearly a year. If this person, James Biela of Spanish Springs, goes to trial and is found guilty by a jury of impartial persons (no doubt those persons will be somewhere far away, as no lawyer would agree to hold the trial in northern Nevada) then the police’s self-kudos will be justified. Certainly, if the information given to us is correct, there is a solid case against Biela.

But while reading and listening to the coverage of his arrest, one phrase kept coming to mind: innocent until proven guilty. In today’s world, however, that’s not how it works. These days, it’s more like, “If you’re arrested, you’re guilty even if proven innocent.” One thing is for certain: If Biela is acquitted he will never be welcome in these parts again. In fact, the lynch mob committee may already be forming.

To this point, there have been no statements from Biela or anyone representing him professing his innocence. The reasons for this could be many, but silence is often perceived as an admission of guilt, a la “pleading the fifth.” It’s a constitutional right, but we all know what that did for Mark McGwire and everybody loved watching him hit the ball.

Another thing that bothered me about the coverage of this incident was the hounding of Biela’s family and neighbors. Reactions among neighbors included statements like “I guess killers don’t wear a sign.” No kidding. The neighbor who made this comment said she had never actually talked to Biela or his girlfriend. My question is this: Why then do I care what you have to say? I hardly speak to my neighbors either, so does that make me a potential killer? The fact that this comment made it into print is an embarassment to journalism, not to mention potentially libelous. Selling stories is the reality of our business, but there is plenty to say without pointless stuff like this.

Then there was the exploitation of Biela’s father. The elder Biela obviously has problems of his own without reporters hounding him about a son he hasn’t spoken to in years. The picture of him in the Reno Gazette-Journal tells everything we need to know; no story would have been necessary. Just a photo and the description “Biela’s father.” But, that paper chose to point out that he was drinking vodka and Coke as he attempted to defend what little dignity he has left against obvious attempts to portray him as the root of his son’s alleged evil. Reporting on the background of a convicted murderer is interesting if not pertinent, but Biela isn’t convicted yet. Not officially, anyway.

As I put together my own paper for Thanksgiving Day, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about splashing Biela’s picture across the front page. Despite the word “suspect” in the headline, I knew that readers would actually read the words “rapist and murderer who deserves a painful death!” My comfort comes from knowing that the Tribune’s story stuck to the facts of the case.

For everyone’s sake including Biela’s, I hope the police’s evidence holds up and he is guilty. If so, I’d gladly pull the switch or push the plunger or put the noose around his neck, or all three. If not, it would be nice to think there would be some way to apologize to Biela and his family but there isn’t.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to brush up on my criminal procedure in case there is a trial to cover.

Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at
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