The arrest last weekend of an unnamed 15-year-old, the so-called second guy, in the murderous Nov. 16 crime spree in San Jose brought back a treacherous memory for me.

In the spring of 1992, when I was covering the police beat, I wrote about the killing of an attendant during a robbery at a Camden Avenue Shell station. The victim was a 28-year-old Vietnamese man who had lived in the U.S. for only four years.

Three teenagers from Leigh High School, aged 18, 17 and 16, were arrested. The kids told police that the nervous 18-year-old fired when the attendant shook out a bag the robbers had given him for money.

I worked hard to uncover the kids' identity and background. At Leigh, the motto of their crew was "Fear No Mob,'' or FNM. They had committed at least two previous robberies.

Marching into the managing editor's office, I pleaded that we run their names. The Mercury News had occasionally identified minor suspects before, and I argued we shouldn't cloak these kids with anonymity in such a crime.

My editor demurred, and we identified only the 18-year-old, an adult under the law.

Nothing about that interchange departed from the ordinary back and forth of journalism. Reporters are supposed to push to include more facts. Managing editors are supposed to exercise caution. It is the song and response, the antiphony, of our craft.

Central Park case


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A couple of developments, however, have shaken my melody. One of the arguments I made to the managing editor was that The New York Times, my journalistic paragon, had named minors in the case of the Central Park Five, five teens accused of raping and beating a female jogger in 1989.

History suggests I could have picked a better example. In 2002, a judge overturned the convictions of the Central Park Five, which were based on confessions given during onerous police interrogations. While the five had been in the park, DNA evidence pointed to a different assailant in the jogger case.

That case echoes even now. The filmmaker Sarah Burns, the daughter of Ken Burns, has just completed a movie on the case called the "Central Park Five." She concludes that the treatment of the kids reflected the fear and racism then endemic in New York City.

Crime spree

And so we come to the case of the 15-year-old, who San Jose police say accompanied Jonathan Wilbanks, 26, in a spree that included four armed robberies, the slaying of a Campbell man and the attempted killing of a police officer on the East Side.

The old police reporter in me says that if ever a case cried out for identifying the kid, this is it. We need to know how and why he wound up in the situation he did.

Surveillance camera image from one of the robberies committed during the spree in San Jose.
Surveillance camera image from one of the robberies committed during the spree in San Jose.

If the district attorney's office decides to try the 15-year-old as an adult, his name would be public. And that would offer a peek into a ladder of crime with ever-lower rungs.

But I've been around teen crime long enough to know that what I used to take as public censure -- the naming of a suspect -- might be acclaim for this kid. It could heighten his profile among his peers to have his name in the media.

So the old certainties erode for me. I'm always on the side of revealing the name. It is what reporters do. Disclosure counts as its own good. I'm just no longer so confident all my assumptions are right.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.