Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Let the poor reporting begin.

In the initial report of the disposition of Howard Bryant’s case on Masslive.com, the online news source for the Springfield Republican that covers Western Massachusetts, reporter Fred Contrada, although essentially correct, nevertheless managed to leave an incorrect impression which has since been picked up by numerous other outlets passing off second hand reporting as something more. Contrada accurately reports that Bryant “agreed to serve six months of pretrial probation.” Unfortunately, by failing to define “pretrial probation” a number of subsequent reports and headlines have erroneously stated that Bryant was “sentenced to probation.” That is not the case.

As described under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 276 Section 87, Bryant was not sentenced to probation. He agreed to a very specific form of probation, commonly known in Massachusetts as “pretrial probation.” This is an administrative, negotiated agreement between Bryant and the court. It DOES NOT contain any admission of guilt and the defendant does not give up either his right to a trial or a presumption of innocence. It is not a “plea bargain,” since there is no plea, or acceptance of any kind of “lesser” charge. In essence, the court offers to make a procedural finding that, after a period of six months, will result in the case being dismissed and disappearing entirely unless the defendant violates terms of probation, which in this case means he is charged with a subsequent crime. Such an agreement is usually offered by the prosecution when the facts and evidence do not merit a trial, i.e. the State has no credible case. It is generally accepted by a defendant because, unlike some other procedural outcomes, such as a continuance without a finding (CWOL), which is sometimes offered in weak or inconsequential cases that the State does not wish to bring to trial, by accepting pretrial probation the defendant never pleads guilty or admits to anything about the charges. With a continuance without a finding (CWOL) the defendant still must admit to something on the record. Bryant, by agreeing to pretrial probation, does not. In six months the case, including his record of pretrial probation, disappears entirely from the record, as if he were never charged or arrested.

In the reporting of this case, what should have been the “lede,” (or, for those non-journalists now reading, the major point), was buried, and it has been buried in nearly every other subsequent report. The most significant point was the statement that “A careful review of all of the statements of percipient witnesses that have been collected do not support allegations that Mr. Bryant struck, choked, pinned against a car or committed any other act of violence against Mrs. Bryant,” a statement that repudiates the States’ own witnesses and the police reports of the incident.

In the end, the State concluded that there was no evidence that a crime was committed, and therefore no crime to prosecute. Case closed.

But it takes an open mind – and accurate reporting - to admit that.

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