Bert Heyman wanted the photos of his son Chris Heyman’s 2004 gun death to have an impact on the national debate over gun laws. “He wants every part of his son’s case to matter,” Huffington Post reporter Jason Cherkis told Poynter in a phone call. “It’s almost like organ donation in a way.”
But Huffington Post published the photos of the crime scene in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., at 2:08 p.m. on Monday, April 15 — less than an hour before two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. So on Friday, the site republished the story, with updated details about, among other things, the U.S. Senate’s April 18 vote on gun background checks.
The photos aren’t easy to look at, and The Huffington Post’s article precedes them with a boldface and italic warning: “Note: The images below are graphic and may be disturbing to some readers.”
A previous piece of Cherkis’ gun reporting illustrated gun deaths with an interactive map. This one is different. “We didn’t really approach it from the angle of wanting to make sure it’s shareable and viral,” Huffington Post Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim, who edited the article, said. “This a much more personal experience for a reader.”
A homepage splash for the story shows a photo collage of the 48 bullet casings found at the scene of Heyman’s death. One of the photos in the article shows Heyman, 17 when he died, slumped over in a car’s backseat, his head on a blood-soaked towel, an evidence cone on his knee, his seatbelt still fastened. Another appears to be taken from above, showing a hole in Heyman’s neck, with purple trails spidering away from it.
“The key question to us is … are his loved ones OK with it,” Grim said. “And the answer here is yes. His mother and father wanted to do it. And so that was what we needed.”
Bert and Jenny Heyman had already spoken to The Huffington Post for another story about gun deaths. Cherkis writes in the new story that Heyman was profoundly influenced by a Michael Moore essay arguing that if Americans saw crime-scene photos from the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, “it will be the day the debate on gun control will come to an end.”
“We’re trying to make the point that there is something unusual happening here,” Grim said. “This is not how the rest of the civilized world behaves. People in other industrialized countries do not mow each other down with anywhere near the frequency we do. And it’s wrong. If this family happened to live somewhere else the chance that a random act of violence woulda taken their son — dramatically smaller.”
Grim says he ran the decision to run Heyman’s photos up the chain, and his bosses didn’t object.
“I knew that if we were going to do stories on gun violence, we were going to eventually get to the place where we’d talk about crime scene photos,” Cherkis said. The prosecutor’s office, which won a conviction for Heyman’s murder, initially sent HuffPost a set of photos that didn’t show the body. Cherkis asked for another set: “I thought we should go all the way,” he said.
I used to work with both Cherkis and Grim at Washington City Paper