The Sarasota Herald Tribune, a newspaper with an addiction to excusing, or at least minimizing, the behavior of the most violent criminals, just did it again.

In a front-page story on Delmer Smith, the brutal South Florida serial killer and rapist charged with yet another woman’s death last week, the paper boldly asserts that Smith “tried to go straight” after his release from prison.  Did he, really?  Is there proof for this fascinating claim?  They don’t offer any: they just say it’s so.

Down here in the real world, Smith was committing extremely violent rapes within weeks of being released from prison.  Confronted with such facts, why would any newspaper leap to limning the silver lining of the rapist’s character?

Habit, I suppose.  In the moral universe of the SHT newsroom, all ex-cons are automatically presumed to be earnest practitioners of self-reform . . . until they’re not, and sometimes even after that.  In Smith’s case, the distance between the prison door and his first known violent attack is actually extremely short.  Released in October 2008, he attacked and beat a female jogger a few weeks later and then immediately committed a violent home invasion and sexual assault of two additional women.  Escalating attacks followed.

The Herald Tribune, however, doesn’t bother to mention this inconveniently compressed time-line.  How could they, and simultaneously resuscitate the beloved theme of felons and second chances?  It’s as if they laid all those brutalized women alongside a story they like to tell about crime and punishment — a story in which hope springs eternal for the rehabilitation of any criminal — and chose the story, over the reality.

They had little to work with, far less than a widow’s mite, but that didn’t stop them.  It’s Valentine’s Day Week, after all:

Delmer Smith III spent much of his life in prison before finally being set free in 2008. Upon his release he moved in with his wife in Bradenton, a woman 23 years his elder that he met as a prison pen pal.  For a brief spell, Smith, 38, seemed to be living within the law, seeking work as a personal trainer, a mechanic and at a grocery store.

Poor Delmer.  Such hopes and dreams.  If only society had been more welcoming to him, why, then, it might have taken him more than one holiday sales season to start raping and killing women.  You see, it’s all our fault.

The Tribune story is drawn largely from claims made by Smith’s geriatric jailhouse pen pal and ex-beau — you know, one of those pathetic women who seeks excitement, attention, and romance by getting involved with violent prisoners.  Women like this regularly cross the line from accommodating to abetting.  That, and the decision to shack up with violent felons in the first place, ought to make reporters wary, but it’s amazing what can be overlooked in the rush to non-judgment.  The Tribune allows this woman to prattle on, behind a veil of anonymity, about her romance with Smith on the same week another victim’s family has been forced to publicly re-live the murder of their wife and mother:

[Smith’s] wife — a 61-year-old woman who no longer lives in the area but asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution — first befriended Smith almost 10 years ago. Another inmate was writing to the woman’s friend and asked if Smith could contact the Bradenton woman by phone. A few days later, he called and their relationship took off.  Over the years, they wrote back and forth, including a Valentine’s Day card she still has. One day he called and proposed. She agreed and the woman says they had a ceremony in the penitentiary.

Their relationship “took off.”  She still has his Valentine’s Day card.  How touching.  I’m glad we all know that, because it sort of humanizes him, doesn’t it?

Given their track record (see here, here, and here), I’m actually surprised the Tribune didn’t go even farther — interviewing, say, a forensic psychologist for hire or a “re-entry” expert to offer up platitudes about how we all have to work harder to make offenders feel welcome once they’ve paid that pesky debt to society.  Meanwhile, the paper’s official antipathy towards all types of post-incarceration monitoring — expanded DNA sampling, registration lists, living restrictions –blinds them to the fact that, in the absence of such laws, Smith might still be on the loose.

No, you couldn’t possibly go off message (especially in a news story) and acknowledge that expanding the DNA database really does saves lives (when administered properly, that is).  Better to stick with the usual song-and-dance about ex-cons turning over new leaves, though it hardly fits the facts.   The reporter, and his editors, should apologize for this stomach-churning exhibitionism.

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