Getting it right: Reporting on a murder case

There are countries where the press reports little or nothing about crime investigations. The public can be left to wonder for months whether a dangerous perpetrator is still at large. America's tradition of a free press is very different.

Early last Friday, after a furious two-week police probe, 22-year-old Bryan Clay was arrested by homicide detectives in connection with the Martinez family slayings, in which a mother and 10-year-old daughter were murdered with a claw hammer in their home, and the father seriously injured.

Las Vegas police held a late-night news conference Friday to confirm all these facts, which had been flashed hours earlier by Review-Journal reporters.

Bryan Clay was initially booked into jail on an unrelated felony child-abuse warrant from an incident in March, though police already strongly suspected his involvement in the brutal slayings and a previous sex assault by that time.

The Review-Journal's reports were accurate. No one at Metro has requested any retractions or corrections.

Yet Monday, a local TV station was reporting that, "Leaks of unconfirmed information caused Metro homicide to change tactics and its timetable ... and could have tipped off the suspect and caused him to flee. Detectives are shaking their heads in disgust over media behavior ...

"Police say ... that reports Friday that Clay was arrested for murder were dead wrong," reported the station. "Other news reports went public about the rape of Karla Martinez even before her family had been informed by police."

In fact, Clay was arrested by detectives at 6 a.m. Friday; the Review-Journal didn't post that news on its Web site till noon. It's not clear how that could have prompted him to flee.

Clay had been the primary suspect in the slayings for five days before his arrest. To say he wasn't initially "arrested for murder" is technically true - and the newspaper got that right, flashing that Clay was "in custody in connection with the Martinez family slayings and a pair of sexual assaults within the last two weeks."

Although police did not have Clay's DNA until 5 p.m., they had his fingerprints from the murders, his clothing and records from his use of a cell phone stolen from the victim of his first sexual assault. The newspaper also talked to Clay's grandmother, who admitted that Clay had been arrested for his involvement in a murder.

Should that information have been withheld? Why? In fact, despite having opportunites to do so, Metro officials never asserted to us the reporting would jeopardize their case, or asked that facts be withheld.

Did the Review-Journal jeopardize this investigation, "tip off" a suspect in time for him to flee, or get the facts wrong? No. The newspaper got the facts right, and we got them first thanks to plain, old-fashioned footwork.