Letter from jail posed ethical concerns

Reporter Mike Carter has written to people in jail before, but the response has never been as stark as a letter he got last week.

Handwritten in pencil, the letter was from Michael Mullen, confessed killer of two sex offenders who had served their prison sentences. "Stark" was Carter's description; others in the newsroom described it as methodical, cold, haunting and just creepy. It also was troubling on a host of ethical levels. "I don't think anybody thought for a minute it wasn't news, but it was certainly a touchy story," Carter said.

The first question in any discussion of jailhouse confessions is whether to print anything at all. Nothing is potentially more prejudicial to a fair trial than a defendant's admission of guilt.

In Mullen's case, he had confessed to police and in earlier letters to the press. In his first appearance in court he said he wanted to plead guilty to killing Victor Vazquez, 68, and Hank Eisses, 49. Those confessions already had been widely reported.

At his court arraignment Friday, Mullen pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated first-degree murder.

Any glimpse into Mullen's state of mind would be compelling, given that he was accused of a high-profile vigilante crime. He allegedly had prepared a hit list of sex offenders from Whatcom County's sex-offender notification Web site, then posed as an FBI agent to enter a home shared by Vazquez, Eisses and a third man who also was a convicted sex offender.

And the letter had insights that hadn't been reported, including why Mullen didn't kill the third man. "There was new information to advance the readers' knowledge of what happened, how it happened and perhaps what is going to happen next," Carter said.

The reporter's letter to Mullen had posed questions and the letter back had answered them. Once Times editors were satisfied there was no question the response had been written by Mullen, the critical questions were how to tell the story — how to portray and present what Mullen had written.

One clear concern was that a story would essentially give Mullen an open forum to justify what he said he had done. Carter dealt with that by including comments from Whatcom County prosecutor Mac Setter, who challenged Mullen's assertions as self-serving. The story that ran Thursday included quotes reporter Maureen O'Hagan had gotten from Mullen's brother, saying the letter's explanation lacked logic.

Much of Mullen's letter is a diatribe about how society fails to deal with sex offenders. Carter compressed that into a couple of paragraphs. "We didn't need to give him full voice in the story," the reporter said.

As Carter and O'Hagan worked on rounding out the story, editors debated where to put it. This was an important story that raised serious questions about how society deals with sex offenders, including whether communities should publish the names and addresses of offenders who have served their sentences.

Mike Stanton, executive news editor, leaned toward putting it on Page One. "If we do it and we do it right, I think it belongs out front." After an intense discussion, no one disagreed.

A final question wouldn't have been an issue for earlier generations of editors. Given the capacity of the Internet, should we post the letter itself online? Most who had read it said yes.

Here's why: Reading the handwritten letter was a different experience from reading the story. It was methodical. The penmanship doesn't change. Mullen thought out the message just as he said he had thought out the crime. If you are concerned, scared or just fascinated, you want to understand what he had to say.

So that Mullen's letter wouldn't stand alone online, a decision was made to also post the affidavit of probable cause for holding him in jail. It, too, was methodical in its own way, describing how Vazquez and Eisses had each been shot once in the head from close range.

If Mullen's letter could be called cold, the murders, as officially described in the affidavit, could only be called cold-blooded.

"Certainly no one in his right mind would agree with vigilante justice," Carter said, "but people are very frustrated about how society deals with sexual predators."

He added, "the overarching sentiment (from readers) has been one of people agreeing with Mullen's sentiments, if not his methods."

Perhaps that would be different if we could pose questions to Vazquez and Eisses and publish their answers. Or if we could interview the third roommate who lived quietly with them — but we haven't been able to locate him.

For now, Carter's story has shed some light on a disturbing story, which was possible only because he sent a letter to someone in jail who actually responded.

"My experience is that they usually don't," Carter said, "but it never hurts to spend 37 cents."

Inside The Times appears in The Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists