Editor’s note: Orange County-based Erin Runnion is a nationally known child safety advocate who launched the non-profit The Joyful Child Foundation following the abduction, sexual assault and murder of her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha, on July 15, 2002. For more information about Runnion and her efforts to keep children safe and to toughen laws targeting child predators, visit thejoyfulchild.org.
The headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, Feb. 1, 31 jumped off the page and seemed to speak directly to me:
Sandy Hook report avoids naming killer, omits his mother from victims list
The story detailed how members of a commission writing a soon-to-be-released report on the Newtown, Conn. school massacre decided to name the killer in the introduction and refer to him, after that, only by his initials.
Quick, name the killer who slaughtered 20 first-graders and six educators (as well as taking the life of his mother and himself) that horrible day, Dec. 14, 2012.
You probably know his name.
You also probably have a mental picture of what he looks like based on that eerie mug shot that lives forever on the Internet.
Now, name one of the 26 victims of the Newtown massacre.
Try to picture one of their beautiful, precious faces.
My guess is you have a much more vivid picture of the killer than you do of any of the victims.
My guess is it’s not even close: You remember details about the killer, but not the victims (unless, of course, you knew them).
That’s a sad but predictable consequence of living in a culture that seems bent on glorifying the bad guys.
When a horrible murder or mass killing occurs, most of the energy of the media focuses on the perpetrator. Of course, the media has a job to report who the killer or killers are, but there seems to be a problem of balance.
In every case I can think of, more focus and energy is placed on the evildoer at the expense of the victims. True, after a mass killing or murder, most media outlets put together profiles on the victims in an effort to honor their lives and to capture a semblance of the pain their loved ones are suffering and will continue to suffer. Even these attempts often appear disingenuous when the victims only appear in conjunction with the name and photo of their killer.
As time passes, however, the balance always seems to shift in the public conscience toward glorifying the criminals and forgetting the victims.
I was reminded of this sad reality a few months ago when a newspaper produced an online slide show of infamous killers on California’s Death Row, including the monster that took away my daughter, Samantha. The slide show featured brief descriptions of the crime alongside a color photo of each killer. The victims were mentioned only in name.
What was the point of this?
How about a slide show detailing the lives of the people slaughtered by these killers?
People who kill should not be remembered, much less memorialized if their crimes were especially heinous.
I applaud the decision by members of the commission writing the Newtown report to downplay the killer who carried out that unspeakable tragedy out of respect of the victims and their loved ones. It’s a small but symbolic step toward keeping things more balanced when it comes to reporting on tragedies.
When I gave my victim impact statement in court on the day that Samantha’s murderer was sentenced to death, I addressed the killer sitting just a few feet in front of me, off to my right, his back facing me:
You don’t deserve a place in my family’s history. And so I want you to live. I want you to disappear into the abyss of a lifetime in prison where no one will remember you, no one will pray for you, and no one will care when you die.
After all these years since losing Samantha, one of the things that troubles me most is the killer’s lack of remorse. In fact, he never has admitted to the crime.
Since losing Samantha, I have been blessed with the support of countless people who continue to help me carry out of the mission of The Joyful Child Foundation in honor of Samantha and countless child victims.
For that, I am grateful beyond words.
Moving forward, however, I hope we as a society can shift, even just a little bit, our fixation on criminals and pay more attention to victims. After all, when someone commits a horrible act of violence against someone, especially a child, it’s a crime against all of us.
Let’s all try to do a better job of keeping the memories of victims alive and to knock the bad guys off the front page and into the abyss where they belong.