Shortly after I hired on at D Magazine, in 2001, a manuscript came across my desk. Someone at the magazine, probably Wick, had hired a freelancer to write about three recent high-profile murders, all involving family members or people who were romantically involved. I forget the details of two of the murders, but the third was John Battaglia’s filicide. He shot two of his daughters while their mother listened to the horror on the phone. Our story related the gruesome facts of that unimaginable scene and the particulars of the other two murders. It wasn’t a work of art, this story. I’ll never forget the last line (even if I can’t recall two of the names). It went like this: “One thing the [name], [name], and Battaglia murders show is that killing your loved ones doesn’t solve your problems.”
I told Wick that we should spike the story. There was no point to printing it — other than to drag out the corpses so that people could gawk and cringe. Wick agreed. And here I should mention that Wick knows (knew?) Battaglia. Wick’s daughter Loddie and Battaglia’s daughter Faith were good friends. They played together at each other’s houses. Battaglia drove carpool.
So on Friday, when I saw Channel 5 tease an upcoming death-row-interview story in the Morning News about Battaglia, my interest was piqued. There was the one degree of separation thing. There was the story I’d worked on more than a decade ago. And this was the first time I’d seen the fruits of the new union of Channel 5 and the News.
The story published Sunday. It was the centerpiece of the front page. And it never should have seen print.
If you are going to put the face of a child killer on the front page of 360,000 newspapers 13 years after the crime, then you’d better have a good reason to do it. Mary Jean Pearle, the mother of those two girls, declined to comment for the News story, but when Battaglia was sentenced, she told him in court that he was worse than Hitler and Dahmer and that she hoped he’d burn in hell. From what I can tell, Pearle still lives in Dallas. Is there a grocery store in town that she could have gone to this weekend without seeing that man in the checkout line? And then, in a picture beneath him, her two smiling daughters? Pearle is just one person in town who surely felt sick at the sight of John Battaglia.
Here is the justification that writer Sarah Mervosh and her editors offered for the story in the News. The lead talks about the two rose tattoos Battaglia got, one for each daughter, immediately after killing them. Then, starting with the fourth paragraph, the story reads:
As part of a yearlong “Deadly Affection” series, the Dallas Morning News recently interviewed Battaglia and two other inmates convicted of domestic murders to better understand the mindsets and motivations of such killers.
Experts say Battaglia likely felt trapped by his own mistakes and feared losing the people he loved most. So he killed them — a perplexing mentality that experts say is common among domestic murderers. Another inmate, struggling with mental problems, strangled his girlfriend. The third shot a longtime boyfriend while high on methamphetamine.
Though their motives were varied and complex, this much is clear: Domestic killers don’t just kill someone they are supposed to love. In their world, the love they feel is real. But so is the hate. The anger. The shame. Those feelings trump all else — even love — because in the minds of domestic killers, no one’s needs are more important than their own.
It’s a weak justification, and it’s an even weaker conclusion. Later in the piece, Mervosh quotes a criminologist talking about one of the other two murderers, the one who was high on meth during his crime. The criminologist says, “None of us are perfect. Even if the victim did things — they were taking drugs or they cheated on their partner — that doesn’t mean that you deserve to die.” This is true. Also true: killing your loved ones doesn’t solve your problems.
Online, the News gave the story the “Snow Fall” treatment, which is the universal signal in today’s print world that the editors are super proud of a story. The additional images are even more offensive. In one, Battaglia strikes a decidedly playful pose, crossing his legs at the knee, shooting a coy smile over his shoulder through the bullet-proof glass of his interview stall. It’s appalling.
Sarah Mervosh is a good, young reporter. Her work on the West explosion, in particular, stood out. She recently won an award for a profile she wrote. But this story about the three murderers was a mistake. We don’t learn anything. We just get purple prose — the girls “were rendered lifeless by a cascade of bullets on a spring evening in 2001” — and the sense that folks at the paper were giddy that they got three jailhouse interviews. Each killer was mentally unhinged and/or smoking meth. Their mindsets were crazy and high. Trotting out the murders all these years later isn’t a lesson. It’s sensationalism. The victims, the families of the victims, and the readers — we all deserve better.