Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker is entitled to voice his opinions as vociferously as he wants — and God knows he does.
The case of Nicoletta Robinson, 34 — sentenced last week to nine-to-27 years in prison in the fatal overdose of Margaret McConnell, 32 — inspired some real doozies. Among them were Acker’s overheated and unseemly remarks to a Herald reporter that Robinson used her pregnancy as an excuse to delay her March trial.
It’s also Acker’s prerogative to dislike stories in The Herald, as well as the people who write and edit them. Truth be told, if Acker liked every story in The Herald, the newspaper wouldn’t be doing its job.
The district attorney, however, is not entitled to stonewall a reporter because he doesn’t like a story, as he did Tuesday, when he told Herald reporter Melissa Klaric he wouldn’t talk to her or anyone else at The Herald.
Acker is an elected official whose annual salary of more than $185,000 is paid by taxpayers. His duty to run an open and transparent office supersedes whatever personal beef he has with the newspaper.
Acker didn’t like a May 6 story in The Herald, “Black and white or shades of gray.” The story included comments from Robinson about the sale of methadone that had been prescribed to her only. A powerful prescription painkiller, methadone is used by people recovering from opioid addiction.
We didn’t expect Acker to like the story, but we did expect him to act professionally.
Instead, he threw a tantrum, even before the story ran. Acker told Klaric The Herald should prepare to “get blasted.” He impugned the newspaper’s integrity, accusing it of trying to become defense attorney Stanley Booker’s press agent. He also said The Herald was attempting to undercut a two-month-old jury verdict.
All in all, The Herald’s coverage of the Robinson case was balanced and fair. In fact, Acker was quoted more frequently and more prominently than the defense attorney. Even the May 6 story included the views of Acker, who called Robinson a “convicted killer” who tried to make money from “peddling death.”
Increasingly, fatal overdose cases, here and around the country, are prosecuted under new homicide-related statutes. Herald Editor Jeffery Gerritt assigned the May 6 story, not to generate sympathy for Robinson, but to give readers a glimpse of the complexities of such cases, as well as the reality and costs of addiction.
Taxpayers will spend roughly $35,000 a year for Robinson’s incarceration — more than a quarter of a million dollars for the minimum sentence. They also likely will help support Robinson's five children, whose prospects now are bleaker. Statistically, a child with an incarcerated parent is seven times more likely to go to prison.
(We note, respectfully, the lives of McConnell’s two boys, ages 4 and 1, also are marred forever by their mother’s tragic and fatal overdose.)
It's not The Herald’s place to second-guess the jury’s verdict or the judge’s sentence.
More broadly, however, the community and nation need more information and insight than it will get from prosecutors alone to determine how to effectively and humanely fight the nation’s horrific opioid epidemic. A greater understanding of addiction is needed to avoid the mistakes of the enormously costly and failed “War on Drugs” in the 1970s and 1980s.
Part of our job is to provide that perspective and raise hard, even unpopular questions, when necessary. We will continue to do our job, whether we get blasted or stonewalled.
Keeping the public informed about the prosecutor’s office, including responding to reasonable requests from the media for information and comments, is a small but important part of Acker’s job. It's also a good way for him to get his message out.
We urge him to do his job and let us do ours.