Hamil Harris

Inside Media: Reporting the D.C. Sniper Case

October 18, 2008

Guest: Hamil Harris

For three weeks during October 2002, the D.C. sniper case paralyzed the Washington region with fear. Before the perpetrators — John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo — were arrested for the crime spree, 10 people had been killed and three wounded.

Hamil Harris, a reporter for The Washington Post, remembers covering the story and sometime inciting the ire of former Montgomery County, Md., police chief Charles Moose, the lead investigator on the case.

"During the press conferences, my job was to be loud and ask questions, and people would say, 'I can't stand that guy.' I don't care if you don't like me. In the heat of battle, my job is to try and get as much information as possible,' Harris said.

But Moose, while being very judicious, "wasn't that free with information,' said Harris, who worked with his colleagues at the Post, including Sari Horwitz and Michael Ruane, to connect the dots of the case.

When local CBS affiliate WUSA9 and the Post reported — despite police objections —the key discovery of a tarot card left at one of the crime scenes, the relationship between the media and law enforcement officials became further strained. Harris, whose byline appeared on the Post story, said things eventually improved as the case unfolded.

"They needed us, and we needed them,' he said.

Covering the victims' funerals took the greatest toll on the 16-year Post veteran.

"You saw whites, blacks and people of all races crying together. That's when it wasn't just a story any more. This was about our community,' he said.

After contributing to Horwitz and Ruane's 2003 book "Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation,' Harris thought he could distance himself from the story. "But it's still a loss of life, and we just don't value life enough,' he said.

The D.C. sniper case, including an online interactive and video, is part of the "G-Men and Journalists" exhibit now showing through 2009 in the Newseum's ABC News Changing Exhibits Gallery.

Inside Media,' produced by the Newseum, is open to the public. Seating is on a space-available basis.

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