Good News: Youre Unlikely to Die in a Bloody Rampage!

The Reg says chill, the DA says kill

Are Orange County Register readers hysterical and stupid, or does the newspaper just imagine they are? Following an apparent triple homicide at the West Anaheim Medical Center on Sept. 14, the Register published several stories to calm what it must have believed were its readers' out-of-control fears. On Sept. 15, crime reporter Jeff Collins soothed the suspected anxiety by pointing out the obvious: statistics show people are unlikely to become victims of mass murder. That Earth-shattering news must have produced a collective sigh of relief from the newspaper's audience.

But the Register wasn't done with its much-touted community-service journalism. The article "Tips on Recognizing and Calming Anger" ran the same week. After incalculable creative contemplation, the Reg came up with the following signs for spotting an angry person: "angry words, threats, violence to an object or hitting a wall, and a previous incidence of violence." Equally self-evident clues—such as feet stomping and teeth gritting—were not included on the list.

The Register wasn't alone in treating locals as imbeciles. First-term county District Attorney Anthony J. "Tony" Rackauckas used the hospital shooting to score political points with conservative voters. Just as the media spotlight on the killings was about to dim, Rackauckas elbowed his way in front of television news cameras and reporters to declare a supposedly new and meaningful "get-tough" capital-punishment policy.

At a hastily called news conference at North Orange County Superior Court in Fullerton on Sept. 15, Rackauckas did his best impersonation yet of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. "There isn't going to be any wringing of the hands in Orange County about seeking the death penalty," said the DA, who claimed in his 1998 campaign that he would never use the office for cheap political stunts. "The intention is to make it clear to the public, to anyone who might be thinking about . . . going out and arbitrarily killing anybody."

No doubt countless would-be mass murderers heeded Rackauckas' tough words, stopped polishing their Uzis, trashed their dastardly plans, and picked up Leo Buscaglia love-thyself books.

Orange County is believed to be the only jurisdiction in California that now plans to automatically seek the death penalty for suspects charged with rampage-type killings. Formerly, a three-person panel of county prosecutors determined whether to seek public executions. Legal experts said that because the DA effectively controls the panel anyhow, the new policy is nothing more than showmanship. The best pithy quote came from Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg, who told Times Orange County reporters Jeff Gottlieb and Jack Leonard, "It strikes me as grandstanding and not a good idea. I can't believe the [panel] review process is that onerous."

Nothing was said publicly to point out this weird connection: the same week Rackauckas was pushing political hot buttons, his office was reluctantly admitting to Register courthouse reporter Stuart Pfeifer that it may have convicted an innocent man of murder 19 years ago. A motion for a new trial was filed because two key witnesses for the prosecution now say they fingered the wrong man, Dwayne McKinney. McKinney told Pfeifer, "I haven't done anything, and I'm stuck in a box."

Of course, under Rackauckas' new policy, McKinney would now be in a different box—one buried beneath 6 feet of soil. If anyone should understand the potentially dreadful pitfalls of the state executions, it should be Rackauckas. It was he who, as a staff prosecutor, convicted McKinney.

Those of you who read our Letters page last week know that Times Orange County editorial-page editor Stephen Burgard was not happy about being named one of OC's "weaklies," our picks for the least powerful people in the county. What you don't know is that the ultrathin-skinned Burgard was so furious that he sent an angrily worded fax to the Weekly's corporate office at the Village Voice in New York. He also has been strongly hinting at filing a libel claim against this publication. Our supposed crime? Describing Burgard's editorials as "timid and inconsequential." Rather than characterize the Times OC's Sept. 12 editorial on toll-road planning, we'll let you judge whether Burgard's stance is forceful and substantive or meaningless gobbledygook. The column ended noting that "getting a better handle on traffic projections are critical elements in transportation planning."

 
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