The year was 1976.
As a semi-truck passed through Grand Haven on US 31, a distraught woman jumped from the tractor, and ran down the street screaming that she had been raped. City police stopped the truck a few blocks later and took the driver into custody.
It took days to sort out the story, but the Grand Haven Tribune chose to publish the name of the man right away, even though he had not been charged.
As the newsman for my radio station, holding up on the man's ID, I pressed then-Prosecutor Wes Nykamp about charges against that driver. He cautioned me to wait…there was more to the story. And indeed there was! The woman was arrested and charged with filing a false report. The driver was released.
But the damage was done. The man’s name should not have appeared in our newspaper, and my critical editorial on the topic captured first prize in the State Bar of Michigan Advancement of Justice competition. That prestigious award remains here in my office.
Fast forward to 2018. A mentally ill old white man is accused of urinating on a little black girl and uttering racial slurs. Channel 8 immediately releases his name. The NAACP demands that the poor old sucker be charged with a hate crime. His picture is shown on newscast after newscast.
The Kent County Prosecutor, however, did not rush to charge the man. Instead, once again, turns out there was more to the story. The naughty little kids made up the story. The old man was released.
But the damage was done, and nobody even bothers to apologize.
Back in the 70s, it was a poor, hard-working black man from Alabama, with a wife and kids, whose name got smeared. This month, it was an elderly white man struggling with mental issues whose name got unnecessarily smeared.
The rush to get a scoop topped being fair or even, Lord help us, compassionate.
I bring all of this to your attention not to boast about a good decision that I made, but to stress, once again, the importance of showing fairness and kindness to the “little guy,” the one less fortunate, the one who probably cannot speak for himself.
That’s exactly why we’re in this prisoner advocacy business. Inmates feel this type of rejection and unconcern regularly. For them, it's part of life.
A framed verse from Proverbs is on our office wall: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
I've said it before. It’s “Jesus work.”