Important decisions about a tragic case are never easy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 20, 2007

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

That was my reaction when my wife and I were discussing the recent DUI trial of Rebecca Duncan Whitehurst, whose 6-year-old son was killed when he was ejected from the vehicle she was driving at about 1 a.m. Sept. 15. Testimony had indicated she’d made some terrible choices that night, and those choices likely resulted in the death of her son.

Though many of those who have sent letters or posted comments on our Web site are unlikely to believe it, my initial reaction was one of empathy for the mother. She must face the memory of that night for the rest of her life. And regardless of the outcome of her misdemeanor and felony trials stemming from the crash, she will be haunted by the words, “What if …?”

The night of Whitehurst’s trial in General District Court, I prayed for her spiritual comfort, and I will do so again. I have prayed for Dusty Whitehurst’s father and grandparents and the rest of his family. I know they are hurting with a pain that will seem fresh with every passing holiday. I pray that God will give them comfort and that He will somehow use this tragedy for His glory.

I have also thanked God that He has seen fit to protect me and others from my own sinfulness. I do not elevate myself above Rebecca Whitehurst or anyone else, for I know that — absent the intervention of Jesus Christ — God considers my own sins to be just as detestable as hers or those of anybody else. As the apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

I do not judge Rebecca Whitehurst. That task falls to our court system and, ultimately, to God. My job as a journalist is to give a fair and accurate account of the news that occurs in our community. In this instance, that meant covering a public trial about an incident that has resulted in a loud and volatile public debate and no shortage of gossip.

I make no apology for doing that job. It is an important one and one with which most people have no complaint until the awful occasion that they find themselves or those they love portrayed in tragic circumstances.

In the specific instance of Rebecca Whitehurst’s DUI trial, I found myself faced with a deadline decision that would prove extremely controversial: whether to describe Dusty Whitehurst’s injuries.

Despite the somewhat graphic nature of that description, I felt it was important to include it for two reasons. First, it helped explain why paramedics made no attempt to resuscitate the boy when they arrived on the scene, despite his mother’s pleas that they do so. Second, the description was a graphic reminder of the potential results both of driving while intoxicated and of neglecting to secure a child (even a 6-year-old) in a car seat. Editor Paul McFarlane agreed, specifically signing off on that description when I told him I had some reservations about it.

I know that our decision brought pain to Dusty’s family, and I feel terrible for adding to their grief. Clearly that was not my intent. Given the opportunity, though, I’m not sure if I would make a different decision. The story and its implied warning were just too important.

R.E. SPEARS III is a reporter for The Tidewater News. His e-mail adddress is