Devon Epps, Amanda Smith and the difficulties of reporting crime news

The pillow. The cops are testing the pillow.

The Greenville News’ Paul Alongi greeted readers this morning with news that the Greenville County Sheriffs Office is testing the pillow that Amanda Smith says a carjacker used to smother her son Devon Epps.

At first blush, especially for the hundreds–if not thousands–of people who are spending their days searching for any new piece of news on the case, Alongi’s revelation may elicit a “Well, duh.” Of course, the cops are testing the pillow. My guess is there isn’t a piece of paper or lint that’s not being scrutinized. However, Alongi cannot be criticized for the one little tidbit of information used to lead his story today. Why? Because Alongi is keeping the story alive and that’s harder than it may seem.

If you missed the last post here, Reading Between the Lines of Devon Epps’ Death, here’s a brief rundown of the story: Mother, Amanda Smith (no relation to Susan), tells cops she stopped at an intersection near a Greenville interstate. She says a guy who looked like the Unabomber (or some would say the Geico Caveman or her ex-husband), jumped into her car and smothered her son with a pillow before running off into the woods. Incredulous doesn’t begin to describe the community reaction. People are looking for information everywhere, including the cached version of Amanda Smith’s web page. Here’s some of what they’re seeing on her old page. [Edit: Some pictures removed at request of uninvolved parties.]

While it’s been ten days since the death, the amount of official information coming out has been pretty sparse. This is the time when uncreative reporters start using the phrase “tight-lipped” and looking elsewhere for news.

How does it work? Well, my perspective comes from a TV newsroom. Every morning (say around 9:00-9:30am), the newsroom gets together to figure out what they are going to cover for the day. After some brief announcements from the bosses, each reporter in the room is given a chance to offer ideas for the daily coverage. Eventually, the crime beat reporter (who, if he or she is doing his or her job, has already been on the phone with no less than four different investigative agencies) gives a rundown of the overnight crimes and follow-ups on on-going investigations. The chances of whether a story shows up on TV that night begin with that reporter. The “pitch” includes what the reporter can do with the story and whether he/she can fill a two-minute hole in the newscast. That means, the reporter will have to find one or two people to interview, not to mention to find b-roll video to cover all his/her voice track. What’s more, the story has to be interesting. If the pitch is good, the bosses (producers, assignment editors, and news directors) discuss it in a post-meeting meeting and the reporter then ends up with an assignment. The problem is, at least when it comes to TV news, that the cops don’t want to do interviews every day. The reporters have either exhausted their sources or run out of energy chasing new people. Eventually (like, around day 4 or 5), the story starts turning into a 30-second VO (voice-over) or falling out of the newscasts entirely.

The Greenville News’ Paul Alongi is doing his best to keep the story alive. He’s finding a new lead nearly every day and doing his best to keep the story in the public eye. If he has to lead with the fact the cops are testing a piece of evidence, then so be it. At least he’s trying.

I don’t envy the reporters’ positions. They have precious little to work with. There are few pictures and little video of the scene of the crime. The investigators are being as forthcoming as they can without hurting their case. I can only assume all the reporters have tracked down the family and friends of the the mom and victim (because, to be fair, they’re pretty easy people to find) and can’t nail down an interview. What’s more, Amanda Smith isn’t giving them much to work with. Sure, her old MySpace page shows she is a one-time party animal, but that’s not news per se. If she had any bad criminal record, that would be news, too. However, records show that she’s not committed any felonies in her 26 years in this area. Her worst crime for which she’s been arrested is passing a bed check to Wal-Mart a couple of years ago. Beyond that, she’s simply a traffic scofflaw.

Amanda Smith’s Record

October 1996 –Speeding

May 1999 — Failure to show proof of insurance
June 1999 — Speeding (Failed to show for court)
August 1999 — Failure to wear seatbelt

September 2001 — Speeding
December 2001 –Failure to yield right of way

February 2002 –Speeding
August 2002 — Speeding
December 2002 — Negligent driving

March 2003 — Speeding
August 2003 — Speeding

June 2004 — Speeding

November 2005 –Speeding
November 2005 — Fraudulent check to WalMart

September 2006 –Operating vehicle on highway without registration and license due to delinquency

January 2007–Use of license plate other than for vehicle which issued
June 2007 — Speeding (Failed to show for court)

Perhaps the biggest difficulty of all, though, is the presumption of innocence. If we believe in our legal system, we must believe until proven otherwise that Amanda Smith is innocent. As I said before, it is my hope that the hundreds of people calling her a murderer are wrong. I don’t want to believe someone can kill their child, and neither do you.

It makes me, wonder, though, where Amanda has been. I’m sure she has a good attorney wisely advising her to keep her mouth shut until things cool off. However, I ask myself what I would do as a parent if my child had been killed by a maniacal and mysterious stranger and nobody could find him. You know what I would do even if you believed I was to blame? I would be on TV every damned day holding the sketch of the man I saw. I would be telling my story to whomever would listen and holding the investigators to task for not searching for the child killer. I would be giving interviews to every news outlet I could find and I would make sure the man who killed my kid was caught.

For now, the mother in this case is not doing that and I have to wonder why. Amanda, e-mail me. Set me straight. Set everybody straight.

For now, I’m going to be content with Paul Alongi’s hard work. Paul has been around here for a while and knows this beat pretty well. I don’t doubt he’ll be on top of this story when it finally breaks.

Until then, I’m going to hug my kid and his beautiful mother and be happy my family is all in one piece.

Some people just aren’t as fortunate.

Previously:

Reading between the lines of Devon Epps’ death

Other coverage:

Devon Epps: Scene of the crime?

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Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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1 Response

  1. Careful, man. As short-handed as we’ve been lately, you may get drafted for live shots at 5 and 6!

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