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In murder trial, what's so funny?

February 25, 2010 |  5:00 pm

Alcala Closing arguments were Tuesday in the trial of Rodney James Alcala, who was convicted Thursday afternoon of killing a Huntington Beach girl and four L.A. County women.

Paloma Esquivel reported on those closing statements in an article in Wednesday’s print edition, which quoted Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy as calling Alcala a “predatory monster.” As Esquivel wrote, Murphy told jurors that Alcala had tortured his victims before killing them and probably had photographed them after death.

Gruesome stuff.

However, a couple of readers were put off by the photo that accompanied the article, which showed Alcala and Murphy apparently sharing a laugh in the courtroom.

“Readers are left to wonder what’s so funny,” Brent Pierson wrote to Esquivel. “There is absolutely no explanation of this incongruous photo in your article or the caption. Here you've written a story about a serial killer, but you'd never know it by looking at the photo.”

Steve Donell of Los Angeles had a similar view. “I am sickened at the disgusting photo you chose to use of Alcala laughing,” he wrote. “It was a very disturbing choice given the crimes this person may have committed.”

According to Jeremiah Bogert, a photo editor for local news, one reason this photo was selected was that it showed both parties who gave closing statements -- the prosecutor, Murphy, and Alcala, who was acting as his own attorney in his defense.

Also, the choice of photos was somewhat limited by court rules that allowed only one photographer in the courtroom per day. That duty is rotated among the news organizations who are covering the trial, including The Times, the Orange County Register and Associated Press. On this day, it was a Register photographer whose photos were transmitted by Associated Press.

However, Bogert said the photo was not selected because he had few choices but because it showed Alcala in the context of his own defense. “We were showing a real moment in court, and the verdict has not yet been reached,” he said.

In a Feb. 3 article, Esquivel described Alcala’s demeanor in court:

His performance in the trial might be classified as erratic, ranging from seemingly intimidated to absurd to, at times, knowledgeable.

The former UCLA student is well-spoken and speaks quietly. He has developed something of a rapport with [Superior Court Judge Francisco] Briseno, who at times guides him through the legal process, and with Matt Murphy, Orange County senior deputy district attorney, whom Alcala often asks to help with exhibits.

The photo caption might have given the opportunity to explain the scene. The information that was submitted by the photographer described it this way:

Serial murder suspect Rodney Alcala laughs with Orange County deputy district attorney, Matt Murphy, after final arguments during his trial in Santa Ana, Calif. Alcala told Murphy that he thought the deputy district attorney had done a good job on his final arguments but added that he thought Murphy had "played a little loose with the facts."

With that statement, a reader may understand why Murphy might have burst out laughing. However, the caption that was published had much less space to explain what was going on. It read:

ACCUSED: Rodney James Alcala, left, laughs with Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy.

Jim LaVally, assistant Metro copy desk chief, said space constraints were indeed a factor in not being able to provide more information. However, he acknowledged readers' concerns.

"It probably would have been helpful to readers if the context of the scene could have been described in the caption," LaVally said. "The coverage of Rodney James Alcala over the course of his trial has depicted a man who is unconventional, to say the least, and this photograph reinforces that image. But each story and caption should stand on its own in providing a complete and clear package for readers, and in this case we didn't meet that standard."

Deadline must be taken into consideration as well. Copy editors work on multiple stories throughout the night, and they often must simply make the best decision they can at that moment and then move on. But the beauty of a daily product is that you get the chance to start fresh each day, and hopefully do some things better than you did them the day before.

--Deirdre Edgar

Twitter: @LATreadersrep

Photo credit: Michael Goulding / Pool Photo