Here’s how to make the deaths of James Scurlock and Jake Gardner even worse:
Continue to debate this sad case with ill-informed, inflammatory narratives on social media. And of course that is happening. It’s been happening since Gardner shot Scurlock amid protesting and vandalism in downtown Omaha on May 30, and it went on steroids Sunday evening after news of Gardner’s suicide.
Conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, with 2.2 million followers, launched an error-filled tweet storm. She said police found that the shooting was in self-defense (they kept investigating after County Attorney Don Kleine made that determination) and Kleine “Under pressure, appoints a black prosecutor to indict Gardner.” (A judge, not Kleine, appointed longtime federal prosecutor Frederick Franklin to present evidence to a grand jury.) Coulter called Gov. Pete Ricketts a coward for not pardoning Gardner as soon as a grand jury indicted him on Tuesday.
Somewhere in the Twitter mess of not facts, Democrats were blamed for Gardner being charged, even though Kleine, a Democrat, initially decided not to file charges.
Shaun King, founder of the Grassroots Law Project, which works on police and criminal justice reform, tweeted to his 1.1 million followers, “Unbelievable” — incorrectly saying a warrant was issued for Gardner last week but “police never went to arrest him.” The World-Herald reported that a warrant was approved Friday, but none had been issued, which would be required for police to go arrest Gardner, who was in Oregon.
Because of Twitter’s sewer function, commenters soon were attacking World-Herald reporters for doing their job.
A writer for the Gateway Pundit website who used to work for Russian-funded agency Sputnik posted our story from Tuesday’s indictment. Brave commenters on that post called for the Twitterati to make sure reporters on that story “never sleep peacefully again.” Find them, make them famous, posters said.
This is for the sin of reporting the news that a grand jury indicted Gardner.
At the same time, we received emails on the story reporting the suicide for being too soft on Gardner — something that happened throughout the summer.
Here’s the bottom line: It’s not our job to adopt a narrative preferred by supporters of one person or another. That’s the opposite of our job. Immediately recognizing the sensitivity of this story, The World-Herald focused on the available facts of the case and worked through the summer to prepare a thorough assessment of what the grand jury would consider.
That story, published in print and online on Sept. 6 with a compilation of video from the incident, examined evidence we knew would be available to grand jurors and tapped three local legal experts to discuss that material and points of law.
When Franklin announced the indictment last week, he gave an overview of new evidence, including messages on Gardner’s phone and video from inside his bar.
Since charges were filed, we expected those details to emerge in court. Now that Gardner has committed suicide, we are pressing for the grand jury report Franklin had promised if no charges were brought. We believe the city needs that transparency.
Moving toward equal treatment for people of color is an important, ongoing battle supported at least in words this summer by Omaha police, the mayor, business leaders and others.
Suicide by our nation’s veterans, of whom Gardner was one, is a crisis we also must address.
We cannot do these things if we get sucked in by Twitter influencers who benefit from encouraging people to scream and threaten.
James Scurlock and Jake Gardner carried the experiences of their very different lives onto Harney Street on the chaotic night of May 30 and got into a fight. Video shows that much without dispute. Gardner brought a gun that he fired three times, and the judicial system was set to determine if his actions were criminal. That also is an indisputable fact.
Now two families mourn their sons and brothers, and the issues that brought these men together remain as unresolved challenges critical to our future.
This has been a complicated, painful and nuanced case, but this much is certain: Throwing bombs on social media, calling each other names and threatening reporters will not move us toward a more equitable society.
Randy Essex is executive editor of The World-Herald.