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Jessica SieffThe one thing I do know for sure is that as a journalist, there are plenty of stories left for me to tell. I can also say that I will likely forever be impacted by the story of Dakotah Eliason.

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Jessica Sieff: Some stories stay with you forever

Published 7:45pm Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The 14-year-old facing charges in the March shooting and death of his grandfather, the youngest in our county to face a sentence of life without parole has – for me – shined a light on the nature of crime, the complexities of family and the way we journalists do our work.

When it broke, the shock of the story itself cut like broken glass. A young boy picks up a loaded gun and pulls the trigger, allegedly shooting his grandfather on the couch where he slept, in the home the boy often visited, where good memories would be stained blood.

Now, Eliason faces murder charges and an uncertain future.

In stories such as these, in the case of severe crimes, the real story goes beyond the physicality of it all, the cold hard steel of a gun, the body, the blood and rests within a thick quilting of elements.

There is the courtroom with its cast of judicial players, lawyers trying to interpret law and formulate it to life, judges holding court, a heavy rule, peace for some families, hope for others.

Behind the superficial titles of defendant and victim there are those families; pieces of a history, traditions and love and birthdays, hobbies and barbecues, hugs and hands held.

In this case, a family has been torn apart by one of its own.

From the hours spent in a courtroom listening to painful testimony from such a young boy, to speaking at length with Dakotah’s parents, I have had a chance to see how there is so much more to the father, so much more to the mother, so much more to the son than we will every really be able to know.

Still in the shadow of the crime, there are the questions. How does such a unit repair itself? Or does it just remain torn?

When he speaks, Eliason’s voice is heavy and adult, like a child forced to grow up too fast for his stature. There is something altogether mysterious about him. Is he just a troubled child or as some have already called him, a sociopath?

These are things the public and his family may never know for sure.

What we can know for sure is that there is always more to the story. Always more than what the surface allows us to see. And it is our responsibility to have respect for all the players.
Dakotah and his family may now face an unfortunate reality – that this is their new reality, that their son will forever be defined by this one moment. And it is a sobering thought – even for the observer, such as myself.

We can be defined by others by a moment in time. Unless we have the faith and the courage to define ourselves even in the darkest of our times.

From the moment Dakotah Eliason appeared in court and his voice was heard on audio and video recordings, I did not judge who he was or whether he was a bad person or a good person. Ultimately and thankfully that’s not my job. I cannot say for sure what exactly led him to commit such a crime. But I did realize and solidify my opinion in one thing – when you open your mind to try and understand something, there is much more room for life to breathe. To close it would be dark and suffocating. In that space, maybe we can understand how a young mind could come to such a tragic point. Maybe we can learn something and do better for the future.

Maybe we can see that these people are real; they are mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and they hurt and they ache and they suffer just like we do.

It’s sad. All the way around.

During this time, covering this case, I’ve learned something else. Journalism goes beyond the focus on fact and attribution, being fair and balanced and the absence of opinion.
It’s imperative but only halt the work.

Our job is not only to be knowledgeable but amiable. To be appropriate. We have to walk a delicate line of emotion with our sources.

Because we are supposed to know that these stories, some of them unfortunately, can be found around every corner.

Every closet has a skeleton, behind every loving family there can be heartache, behind every honorable man or woman, a flaw.

The story of Dakotah Eliason has reminded me why I chose this profession in the first place.

To tell the stories that collectively define the rest of us as a society.

Jessica Sieff is a reporter for the Niles Daily Star and the Edwardsburg Argus. Reach her at jessica.sieff@leaderpub.com.

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