Born again, maybe not

When it's too good to be true, it is, at least for some New York Times reporters writing a prisoner conversion story.

David Berkowitz, also known as "Son of Sam," killed six people and wounded seven others in New York City before he was finally arrested in 1977. With three reporters (Serge F. Kovaleski, Alain Delaqueriere and Daniel E. Slotnik) contributing to a 1,700-word feature, you would think there would be room for a sentence or two explaining how exactly this man converted to Christianity. Instead, we get anecdotes here and there that explain who's using Berkowitz's for their own purposes.

This circle of admirers, to a great degree, is made up of evangelical Christians, including a Town and Village Courts judge in upstate New York and a financial adviser in Manhattan, who have been moved by Mr. Berkowitz's story of becoming a born-again Christian 23 years ago, and many of them have sought to publicize his account of redemption.

But there are others who have been drawn to him for reasons that are not religious, like the director of the mayor's crime victims office in Houston and Daniel Lefkowitz, a Bronx teenage acquaintance of Mr. Berkowitz's who interviewed him in 2009 for a talk show he hosts on cable-access TV in northern Westchester County.

Berkowitz's story doesn't seem so unusual if you read similar scenarios coming out of prison ministries. But they write, "What all these people have in common is that they have made Mr. Berkowitz, 57, the beneficiary of what has amounted to a highly unusual public relations makeover." Now there's some serious skepticism.

[T]he politically powerful Christian group Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs conducted a radio interview with Mr. Berkowitz in 2003 about his troubled childhood, the shootings and his religious faith.

Why preface Focus on the Family with "politically powerful"? Is that why people so many people buy its books, listen to its radio programs, use their resources, just to hear a political point of view? That's sort of like describing Bono (who might endorse a politician here and there) as just politically powerful.

Infamous criminals have always had a knack for attracting followings--populated by conspiracy theorists, suitors and others. But experts in the field of prison ministry say Mr. Berkowitz's work, through his own letter-writing ministry and the exposure he has received as a self-proclaimed redeemed serial killer, stands out as unique.

Who are these so-called "experts in the field of prison ministry" and why aren't they quoted? The reporters describe Berkowitz as a born-again Christian without mentioning the person who helped bring that phrase into the mainstream: Chuck Colson anyone? The Watergate conspirator who served a 7-month prison term wrote Born Again, describing his conversion to Christianity. It just feels so relevant to mention that.

The Times story includes some token skepticism from outsiders, which is okay but feels forced, especially in the accompanying video.

But some of those connected to the Son of Sam case express deep doubt about whether Mr. Berkowitz is truly a born-again Christian or whether he is just using religion to present himself as a changed man.

Joseph Coffey, the police sergeant who took Mr. Berkowitz's initial confession, said his statements about his religious convictions were as believable as his amended claim that members of a satanic cult to which he belonged were responsible for some of the shootings.

It's fine to include skeptics, but it's also important to add some context. When did Berkowitz become a Christian? How often does he attend church? Does he attend Bible studies? Does he have a pastor or a regular mentor? Does Berkowitz ever doubt his own faith? How long is he in prison for? Does he play a pastoral or spiritual role inside the prison? Focusing less on this man's admirers and more on some basic context might patch this piece up a little bit.

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