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Opinions editor reflects on ‘Law school set to graduate registered sex offender’

Published: November 14, 2013, 1:09 am ET
Opinions Editor

Last week’s front-page story of The Collegian raised some troubling questions, to say the least. It was a shock to me to find out that this university’s law school had not only admitted a registered sex offender who had plead guilty to aggravated sexual battery, but had given him its most prestigious scholarship.

My colleagues Katie Conklin and Richard Arnett, who spent weeks reporting this story, and my editors expected to receive a lot of feedback. And with more than 50 comments on our website, scores of emails and responses from people whom members of our staff have talked to around campus, our expectations were correct.
We don’t have an ombudsman or public editor to judge what The Collegian did right and what it did wrong, but I will put on my Opinions editor hat and try to respond to some of what I’ve heard and read.

NOTE: My opinions are mine only, and do not reflect those of The Collegian, Katie Conklin, Richard Arnett or any other member of The Collegian’s staff or the university’s journalism department.

Some readers have responded to this article by saying that The Collegian infringed on the privacy of Zachary Jesse, the man whom the article speaks of. Comments on our website accuse this story of existing to “drag a man through the mud” and make Jesse “a target for hatred.”

Debating the ethics of the American justice system should be the subject of books, not 500-word articles, so I will simply say this: In our country, persons found guilty of sexual offenses are forced to give up a certain amount of privacy. A Google search of Jesse’s name brings up (on the first page) a link to an article about his crime and two links to sex offender databases, along with some mug shots.

Frankly, what The Collegian found out about Jesse is what any person could have found, which is why the main focus of this article actually concerns the University of Richmond School of Law.

It is not, and should not, be illegal for a felon who has served his or her sentence to get an education. The question that I and other readers have said they want answered is why Jesse was given the John Marshall Scholarship.

This was where the article fell short in my opinion: What exactly is the process for awarding what the law school calls on its website its “most prestigious scholarship”? Dean Wendy Perdue spoke of “redemption” in her response to our reporters’ inquiries, but the question is how far redemption can go. If a criminal has paid his or her debt to society, does that mean the crime should be forgotten?

It’s easy to dismiss student newspapers. By their very nature, the people who staff them must be inexperienced journalists: amateurs learning the craft. But although the content can sometimes be mundane or ridiculous to those in the real world, student reporters are no less journalists than somebody with a B.A. after his or her name.

Last week’s front-page story of The Collegian was compelling journalism that shouldn’t be ignored, and I hope it will spark the discussions this campus needs to have.

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  • TheCommentator

    There is no reason for me to know what a person happened to be arrested for 15 years ago. People change and everyone deserves a second chance. First time offenders should not be placed on the registry.