Our Coverage of the Merrick Molestation Case

We answer the DA's criticism of coverage on Lamorinda Patch.

Here at Patch, we are committed to an open and honest dialogue with you, our readers, about the news and issues facing our community. When Patch itself becomes part of news coverage, it’s even more important to us that we respond to your feedback.

Recently, Lamorinda Patch has been the subject of attention for an article on the Michael Merrick molestation case.

In response to Judge Clare Maier’s decision to bar the public from the trial, some have questioned whether our article included too much identifying information about the alleged victim. Assistant District Attorney Johanna Schonfield has said Lamorinda Patch's Dec. 9 story was the reason she asked the judge to ban the public from the courtroom. Schonfield called Lamorinda Patch’s journalism “irresponsible.” In addition, a private attorney hired by the alleged victim’s family said our story was “reckless and insensitive.”  

We felt it was important to note that no one has said Lamorinda Patch got its facts wrong in the story, which was based on a public document obtained from Contra Costa County Superior Court. In fact, Lamorinda Patch avoided using information that was not redacted by police that would have made identification of the victim possible. 

Lamorinda Patch disagrees with the assertion that its reporting of a high-profile case is justification for closing that case to public scrutiny. Doing so undermines public confidence in our judicial system.

Patch stands by our story and our decision to publish it.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that the Dec. 9 story was based on a publicly available document.

suzanne March 09, 2011 at 07:40 PM
I am grateful for the Patch coverage, although some of the initial "comments" did make me worry about the young victim. I am glad to see an airing of Lafayette's dirty laundry, Patch does not subscribe to the Lafayette belief that our poop doesn't smell. I work in Oakland and lived in Piedmont. In those communities if you do something bad it is quickly reported to the police, appears in the media and the story is followed, no matter who you are, ie the MD caught soliciting sex from a minor on nationwide TV. In Piedmont the police police the citizens, as well as visiting criminals. In Lafayette the police and media, and now the courts are used differently.Police involvement is not solicited by our government, the desire to appear to be a crime-free community is paramount. For example, juvenille delinquents vandalized our Community Park for many years and the police were never asked to conduct an investigation that would lead to a prosecution. The city paid quietly paid $50,000 to repair the damage, and the Parks Department is planning to spend $250,000 to build these miscreants a BMX park to prevent more damage!! You can see photos of these criminals and the destruction they did, at the CITY OF LAFAYETTE sponsored lafayettebikepark.com or the opposition nolafayettebikepark.com.These are bad kids, there are bad adults in town, and they need to be outed and held accountable.A free press is one way to accomplish that when the government refuses to do so.Cudos to patch.
Whiff Collins March 11, 2011 at 11:17 PM
Overall a really bad situation for the victim and her family, the wife and two daughters of the Merrick family. The patch was on the scene early and my knowledge leads me to believe they protected a number of individuals and reported what was indeed fact. There are facts here.....it is not about the Patch or the CC Times
Danielle March 12, 2011 at 12:02 AM
Agreed. Apparently the times has just come out with a pretty nasty editorial blaming Patch for the closure. Curiouser and Curiouser!!
Chris Nicholson March 12, 2011 at 02:54 AM
I read the CC Times editorial from yesterday and commented over there. Bizarre level of sniping and sour grapes. Maybe they should try to compete directly with Patch in terms of reporting and value add to readers instead of complaining about the table manners of the Young Turks who are busy rendering them irrelevant. There is a ton of public interest in the case, so it's too bad they took the unusual measure of closing it. But, as others have said, to important thing is to let the wheels of justice turn and minimize the incremental harm to the alleged victim.
natalie johns March 12, 2011 at 03:28 AM
I agree with Whiff and Chris. Having a hard time figuring out what Patch did wrong and had to re-read the Patch story and Times account several times. Patch legally obtained a public document, took their own steps to shield the child in question and published a toned down account the DA thinks was irresponsible because she did not redact the documents in question??? It's not the patch's job to do that. And now the DA says she doesn't know who redacted - or didn't redact - the documents?? Blaming the media for your own failures is a fairly common practice but a hard sell to anyone with a brain here.
Brad Katkowsky March 12, 2011 at 05:40 AM
I'm confused and do think Chris and others are right and that there's a whole lot of scapegoating going on. I remember the day Patch ran the story in question because I got an alert that the story had been published. I also remember the Lamorinda Sun running almost exactly the same story hours later and then that story disappearing. Something like 'Merrick admits to “inappropriate” texts, denies touching victim' - and citing arrest records presumably accessed by the times. If the Times had the story why did they take it down and then whip Patch for being "irresponsible" by publishing it? I think several factors are at work here: one that the da's office failed in its responsibility to protect the identity of the girl, two that teh judge overstepped her bounds and closed a trial that she has no right to close and three that attorney's for the family and prosecution feel theyhave to justify that move by declaring that a "fledgling" online news organization was trying to "out" the girl. Nothing of the sort but it does appear people are trying to cover up their mistakes. And that the Times is using the opportunity to bash a competitor comes as no surprise.
Trissy March 12, 2011 at 05:49 AM
Are we sure the DA's office released the documents? How do you know the judge overstepped her authority? If there is sufficient reason to close a case to the public, then close the case to the public. If it's a sexual assault case involving a minor and a popular local teacher, then go ahead and close the case to the public. We don't know the details yet, and your statement seems so alarmist.
bryan March 12, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Chris --- your response to the Times was brilliant.
Sara March 12, 2011 at 03:52 PM
The child has not been named. It is arguable whether details which could have led to her being identified in her community were divulged. My personal opinion is that they were not and that people who might have known who she was knew pretty quickly after Mr. Merrick was arrested. It is abhorrent that some parents would try to use their connections to identify the child and that is what should be called into question here. Although some of the comments were off base at times, several were deleted early on and the discussion - in my view - was confined to the issue at hand: alleged predation by a teacher on a minor student. I think it needs to be said that a man with no prior criminal history has been in jail now for five or six months and that his future is about to be decided behind closed doors. I think that's wrong and probably unconstitutional. Even the Contra Costa Times, whose own bias has been shown several times as this case continues, called the move unprecedented. In my opinion the court and district attorney's office, already in disarray, failed on this one.
Danielle March 14, 2011 at 03:49 PM
Yes. I have to admit it was. Still don't agree with you about leaf blowers though!!
Deborah March 15, 2011 at 02:03 PM
There are two effects co-existing - the short term effect and the long term. One affects the other. Even though they are chronological, they are also intertwined. Doing the right thing now sets up a long term benefit of showing would-be miscreants that you will be held accountable, in every way, for perpetrating egregious crimes, especially on children. In this way, transparency now helps to reel in future generations back onto the narrow path later and along the way. I am glad for the bravery of the victim's family and the responsible reporting by the community.
Zoe Claire March 15, 2011 at 04:12 PM
I think the trial should be opened to the public. Closing it does a disservice to the community as a whole and simply is not appropriate. Clear the courtroom when the girl is called to testify - but a man is on trial here and has spent a significant amount of time in jail already. I like things out in the open and not done behind closed doors. The chances of abuse climb when people in power know no one is looking.
Brad Katkowsky March 16, 2011 at 04:30 PM
Agree. If there's a case here let's hear the facts. It's not important that we know who the girl is, but we can't have people making allegations in the dark. Something obviously was happening, let's get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn't happen again. While we're on the topic, would anyone care to argue the wisdom of a teacher or adult for that matter entering their cell number and contact info into a non-family member's phone? Didn't get that at all.
LafayetteRez March 16, 2011 at 09:37 PM
It is my opinion that the reporting and management of the string was certainly bias. I was struck by the editor's comment on October 29, 2010 in which the Lamorinda Patch goes on record soliciting support for the teacher specifically "Anyone wishing to go on the record with public support for this teacher may reach out to Jean or myself as that side of the story is important to us, too." while only offering a token mention for the victim (a minor and the accused is an adult, a teacher who has been arrested pending trial on 17 felony counts of sexual misconduct with a minor). There is a strong imbalance on the part of the patch. I see the reporting as unprofessional, quite amateurish. I believe there should be an ethical obligation not to promote rumor mongering which is the direction in which forum was allowed to go. My honest opinion.
Bob and Ann March 16, 2011 at 10:33 PM
Cannot agree. They've been first with the most info all along and were reacting, I believe, to the number of people who came out in support of Merrick at the beginning. Asking anyone with firsthand information to contact them seems like a pretty standard investigative approach to us, and one I would try if I were doing this type of thing. While there was some wild stuff said in the comments most was deleted pretty fast and nothing harmful was posted. And I dont think that if it came down to it Patch would be held responsible for opinions or rants posted on its site.
Robert Strauss March 17, 2011 at 12:15 AM
As far as I can tell they're the only game in town. They've been right on this and other stories all along.
LafayetteRez March 17, 2011 at 01:47 AM
See Sharon/09Mar11 above for another example Oct 28, 2010 article which said "Lamorinda Patch would also like to speak with anyone willing to go on the record in terms of their support or suspicions regarding this case." She was right to point out the issue with the selection of the word 'suspicions'. I concur with her. Only game in town is an unfortunate situation. What has resulted is a direct and equally unfortunate consequence. By the way, the law provides for protection of a minors identity in these types of cases. The judge acted on it with more than sufficient justification.
Robert Strauss March 17, 2011 at 03:42 AM
Is it just me or is it not a newspapers job to ask questions of people with knowledge of a particular case? Pretty standard practice, investigators do the same thing all the time. And what has happened? The child was never named and an entire case has been closed to public scrutiny because of.... what exactly? No one argues the facts as presented. The really unfortunate thing here is that for some reason the court is continuing to do its business behind closed doors while a man sits in jail. I'm for protection of the child and seeing justice done in the open. Both can be done.
Sara March 17, 2011 at 02:51 PM
I have been watching this case develop for a lot of reasons, mainly because it falls pretty close to home. It does seem to be shaping up into some sort of local test case - both legally and from a journalistic standpoint. I do not believe a case can be closed in this manner and would refer to the Richmond case as, arguably, even more sensitive and it was not closed. So this action seems extreme. I can also say with some knowledge that the name of the child involved in this case is not widely known, as some have said, and that all parties seem to be receiving support from their peers (which says something about the kids here, IMO).
suzanne March 17, 2011 at 03:23 PM
I hope Patch takes on this exclusion from the court house as a first amendment freedom of the press issue. Given the tone of these commnets they would have lots of support.
Lafayette Curmudgeon March 17, 2011 at 03:43 PM
As I recall, JD put that up given the commentary which had pretty strongly condemned Mr Merrick.
Chris Nicholson March 17, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Here's what imagine happened (opinion): Given the troubling facts that had already emerged, and the knowledge that there was more to come, the defense concluded that they'd be better off cutting off public access to the proceedings. The alleged victim naturally would not object to a limitation of publicity. The DA, from a Machiavellian perspective, may have preferred to tone down the pro-Merrick crowd-- no case is airtight, and a room full of supporters is inconvenient, even if case is solid. So, the litigants were all in favor of closing the trial, and someone clever thought of the new law. Everyone wins. But they can't overtly conspire to get that outcome-- that simply wouldn't do. That's where Patch comes in as the patsy. Blame it on the naive upstart pseudo-news organization and their hapless "Jimmy Olsen" reporter. Clearly to0 weak and obscure to defend itself. Then pitch the tale to the CC Times, who couldn't resist the opportunity to "break the news" and simultaneously knee-cap the competition. The fix was in. As with much in modern life (as we drift further away from our fundamental freedoms), the true interested party (the public) wasn't consulted. I simply see ZERO evidence to distinguish this case from DOZENS (hundreds?) of others that were not closed. Going forward, presumably all parties would be hyper sensitive to not disclosing clues to the girl's ID. If there was harm done here, it was historical and does not support future secrecy.
LafayetteRez March 18, 2011 at 08:11 PM
I do not understand why it is necessary to put forth the conspiracy theory in order to support a position here! There is no conspiracy. Last I checked, the Judge is an elected official---voting them in is our prerogative. The patch is a business venture that, with increased traffic, has the ability to increase revenue. It all depends on your target market--are your returns better through quality content or by tapping into the need that some have for the reality show experience. Gossip and controversy sells. ...and withe the cctimes.com, the target market is already too crowded for more entrants. Innocent until proven guilty is correct and a cornerstone of our legal system. The law also defines a 14 year old as a minor and provides for appropriate protections. I have no issues with the legal process and the decisions of the court. What has been so troubling is the repeated aggression and essentially, slander of the child in the forum, whether directly or implied as for instance the discussion over what school children wear these days. Meanwhile, Merrick is all too often referred to as the 'popular middle school teacher'. This is subjective and certainly not supported by 10 people showing up for the hearing. PS-this isn't the BMX Park forum...
J.D. O'Connor (Editor) March 18, 2011 at 09:16 PM
Judge Maier was appointed to her position by Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2007.
Miles VanBuren March 19, 2011 at 04:11 AM
For the conspiracy theorist... The move to close this case from the public is more likely supported from the Merrick family and friends who obviously have been devastated by these charges from such a well known and liked family from this little hamlet known as Lafayette. I find it more than interesting that the Assistant District Attorney Johanna Schonfield who asked the judge to close the hearing to the public was a supporter and hosted a fundraiser for a prominent candidate in the last District Attorney's race who just happens to live in the same town as the Merrick's. You connect the dots.
Carol Ann Long March 20, 2011 at 06:30 PM
As much as I hate to say it, this sounds like a fairly plausible explanation of what has happened with this case. The elephants in the room that are not mentioned are that the Patch reporter used to work at the Times so isn't exactly new to the game and that the Times, which we see now tried to "borrow" the Patch story on the day it broke definitely had something to gain by calling Jimmy Olsen and the "upstart" inept and irresponsible. It may not be Watergate, but it does smell fishy!!
Lafayette Curmudgeon March 20, 2011 at 07:05 PM
I think you've likely nailed it. If the DA, defendant and victim all want some silence, then let them. The court has a lot of leeway in protecting minors in these cases, so if we have a First Amendment beef, it has to be laid at that power in general, not the particular application in this case.
Chris Nicholson March 20, 2011 at 07:55 PM
I think the public/press have (or should have) an independent right to open courts. The privacy rights of a minor in a molestation case are very strong, but I am not sure if a good faith balancing was done here. As I noted above, the privacy breach, if any, seemed to be historical, and I don't think retribution is a good basis for closure when the risk of future harm seems low. All of that said, I would certainly give a lot of deference to the cild and family if there was a real risk of incremental harm.
Hannah lefcourt April 03, 2011 at 07:06 AM
I feel that if the judge says we are insensitive to the family, she is insensetive to us. We all loved mr.merrick and if she doesn't like it, that is insensitive toward us Lafayette school goers. And that,my friends, is unfair and why I hate the goverment. And I'm only in seventh grade.
LafayetteRez April 12, 2011 at 11:52 PM
"We all loved mr.merrick" is a false statement. This may be your personal opinion to which you are entitled but it does not hold true for 'all of us'. For example, as a Stanley parent a multiple times over, my experience and that of my kids differs from your.


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