The news first came in around 10 pm on Thursday, January 23. A man was shot and killed on a Light Rail train in downtown Sacramento, CA on a warm winter night where a lot of people were getting an early start to their weekend. The shooting was scary because it was rare. In fact, it was the first fatal shooting since the line has been in operation. An arrest was immediately made. The Sacramento Police Department issued a news release at 2 a.m. saying the shooter was a woman.
Odd, I thought. I've covered crime in New York, Los Angeles and now Sacramento and it's rare to find a female shooter. And this one fired multiple rounds at the male victim, Eric McCaster, 51. The Sheriff's Department, which oversees the County Jail, identified the female shooter at 12:30 pm Friday as 32-year-old Lynnsey Braun. Her mug shot was released and posted on TV, newspaper and radio websites around the region.
But then an unusual thing happened. Ms. Lynnsey Braun was booked into Sacramento County Jail as a male.
The Sacramento Bee issued a Breaking News Alert: "Suspect arrested in killing of light rail train rider is transgender, source says."
I don't believe that news warranted a breaking news alert, but it certainly sparked a serious discussion in our KFBK radio newsroom. How do we handle it? Do we report suspect is transgender? We wouldn't say a gay or straight person was arrested for shooting someone. But her identity as a woman had been in news cycles for 12 hours and her mug shot for two hours. We felt we needed to explain to listeners why we called suspect a woman but may now have to say she is a man.
Law enforcement could not confirm Braun is transgender. They are bound by legal code not to disclose a person's sexuality or gender identity just like they can't report if a suspect has AIDS, cancer, etc. They must not prejudice a case or reveal personal information about a suspect.
We didn't want to make her gender identification the focus of the story. A man had been shot and killed. KFBK reporter Joe Michaels called the local Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender center which said the suspect should be properly identified as "transgender woman." And that's what we did.
At this point, we don't know the motive in the shooting. We don't know if there was a dispute; possible hate crime or something else. The crime report alleged Braun was in possession of a handgun that was fired multiple times at the victim, killing him. But it made us closely examine how to treat this case. Braun, by the way, is being housed in a special unit at the County Jail for her protection.
Questions we had to ask in the newsroom:
1 - Is the fact suspect is transgender relative to her arrest? No. Just like we wouldn't say whether a gay or straight person was arrested.
2 - Should we report suspect is transgender? In this case, yes. We told listeners she was a woman; they saw a mug shot that raised questions about her gender and she was booked into jail as a male. We felt an explanation was needed after a 12-hour news cycle.
3 - Is her gender identification part of the case? Not at this time. No motive has been revealed.
Those were our decisions on Friday. On Monday, (1/27) a new element came into play. At Braun's arraignment, the Public Defender asked and the judge granted a request thatBraun only be shot from the neck down by news photographers in the courtroom. I covered criminal courts in Los Angeles for more than five years. I never heard of such a request except in the case of sexual assault or child victims.
The prosecuting attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, was asked if gender was an issue in the case. "We never look at that stuff. We look at the conduct," she said.
The judge in court referred to Braun as a woman. Yet, she is listed in jail bookings as a man. We don't know the reason why. Privacy issues prevent us from knowing why jail officials made that decision. Transgender people want to be referred to as the gender they identify with. But does a person still have that right -- if they are accused of murder?
A topic that will be debated not only in newsrooms, but possibly courtrooms as well.
Originally published in the Huffington Post Jan. 29, 2014