Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is not happy about the number of leaks made by Pittsburgh officials and the police department during the investigation of the shooting deaths of two sisters in East Liberty. “There was entirely too much information put out,” he said on Wednesday, adding that obtaining a confession could be problematic.
Mayor Bill Peduto said in response that if the district attorney had a concern, he should have brought it directly to him. Major Crimes Lt. Daniel Herrmann, while declining to speak for the entire police bureau, made clear that, as acting commander when the murders occurred, he had not commented on investigative facts and asked media outlets not to report sensitive information. He also said he felt the media “displayed a defiant and irresponsible attitude ...”
With everyone pointing fingers at everyone else, and as part of the media which takes pride in responsible work, this newspaper would like to point to something else — the context of these events. Leaks always happen and officials never like them. Leaks happen more when the story is big and the public, feeling its safety threatened, becomes alarmed and demands answers.
This was such a case. From the moment the two sisters were found shot dead in early February, it was clear that the community would be fearful. Not only was it a double homicide, but the killer had also targeted two victims in the imagined security of their own home.
Susan Wolfe, 44, who only a few months before had moved from Iowa to Pittsburgh, was a teacher’s aide at Hillel Academy Squirrel Hill. Sarah Wolfe, 38, was a UPMC pediatrician and psychiatrist. No motive for their deaths was apparent.
This out-of-the-ordinary crime naturally was going to be the source of more-than-usual media digging — and it was actually in the interests of the police to be seen by the community to be pursuing the investigation. But that story line needed facts to sustain it. As it was, the detective work finally led to the arrest of the women’s next-door neighbor, Allen D. Wade, 43. Mr. Wade claims he is “100 percent innocent” and he is entitled to the legal presumption of innocence as is anyone accused of a crime.
But Pittsburgh police have built a detailed case using DNA and video surveillance cameras, and the wider community will assume it can breathe more easily. If “no comment” had been the strict order of the day, public anxiety and a lack of confidence in the police would have dogged the investigation.
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one, as the old song has it, but neither is the media’s — and between these competing interests a balance must be struck. Unless press leaks actually lead to the throwing out of evidence, all’s well that ends well.