Newspaper shines on week’s hot local story

I have an almost running conversation with readers who challenge the way the Express-News presents the news. As I often tell them, ours is an imperfect craft. We try to tell the story as best we can, as events happen.

The situation in Japan — a natural disaster that, as this is written, is becoming a human catastrophe — is an example of journalists doing their best, at personal risk even, to tell the story as it unfolds.

But the Express-News can’t do much about what is happening on the other side of the world. It relies on wire services to do that. There were, however, two local stories this week that Express-News staffers handled so perfectly that not one reader challenged them.

The first was the sad, senseless death of SAPD officer Stephanie Brown, 27, who was killed in the wee hours Tuesday in a head-on collision on Interstate 35 by a man driving an SUV the wrong way on the expressway with his headlights off. He also was killed.

Police believe David Baldaramos, 31, was drunk, and Express-News police reporter Eva Ruth Moravec noted in her Wednesday Page 1 story that he was granted probation last fall after pleading no contest to driving while intoxicated.

In a follow-up Thursday, Moravec handled one of journalism’s toughest jobs, tracking down and talking to friends and loved ones of the deceased. She tied their tributes to those of SAPD Chief William McManus, who somberly noted how Brown’s friends on the force crowded into her room at University Hospital as she died.

Even as Express-News readers were reading Moravec’s Wednesday story about Brown’s death, senior state District Judge Pat Priest was releasing another man, one he’d sentenced to 10 years in prison last fall for the DWI-related death, on another local expressway, in 2006, of a prominent emergency room physician, Dr. Roman Hlatky, 38.

The Brown case and the Hlatky case aren’t related, but attitudes about drunken driving in this community united them, and Express-News columnist Veronica Paniagua-Flores spoke for many when she wrote in her Thursday column:

“If a judge of Priest’s stature, who lives and works in this community, won’t weigh the fact that San Antonio has a profound problem with drunken driving and isn’t attuned to the sensibilities of a police department that has seen three of its officers killed or maimed by suspected drunken drivers since October, why should anyone else care?”

It was an admirable stance, which is her goal as a columnist, and it was followed on Friday by an editorial — the paper’s institutional stance — that said Priest’s ruling was “difficult to understand and disappointing,” in light of the DWI situation in this state and this community.

I was also impressed with courthouse reporter Craig Kapitan’s coverage of the hearing where Priest freed Clayton Don Stowe, 31, just five months into his 10-year incarceration.

As I read his story, I was thinking, “Kapitan should have talked to …,” and at each turn, he did so — with help from Moravec and cohort Michelle Mondo — quoting Stowe, his defense, prosecutors, police and Hlatky’s widow (who declined comment). His story was balanced and, in spite of the inflammatory circumstances surrounding the hearing, it was straightforward and without prejudice.

Finally, as with any dilemma, it was a tough call: Priest is not a slapdash jurist. He’s highly respected and his duty is to decide on the case before him, not jump on the pile.

The tragedy is three of the four people directly affected by these two cases are dead. And with the biggest party of the year (Fiesta) around the corner, there is a parable here — and I don’t need to tell you what it is.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on March 19, 2011.

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