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The story of a horrible crime that just had to be explained

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Tonya Nicole Brown's leaving her baby to die and being released early from prison is a story that had to be told.

By Steve Doyle

You may be wondering what the heck has been going on with your newspaper these past few days.
You may not care that Tonya Nicole Brown went into a restroom in Shelbyville more than three years ago and left behind her newborn baby, wrapped in plastic bags and dumped in a trashcan.
You may not care that she is out of jail, barely paying for a crime to which she admitted in a court plea.
But we, as a newspaper, had to tell you, and we hope you did pay attention and that deep down you really care.
This is one of the worst crimes committed in Shelby County in this century and maybe for decades before that.
There are murders, rapes, molestations and other awful things that happen far too frequently, but for someone, a mother of a small child, a wife with a home, to deliver a child in secret and leave it behind to die is beyond comprehension for most of us.
We understand that emotional trauma and split-second errors move many of us to do things we should not do, and we come to see there’s always a better solution.
For Brown, that would’ve been to have walked a couple of hundred feet and handed her baby to a firefighter. She could then have done as she ultimately did, get into her car and drive home to Lexington to her husband and daughter.
But she chose the road of evil and awfulness.
And we, as a newspaper, felt compelled to let you know what happened to her.
We first heard earlier this year that Brown had been released because of something called shock probation.
We could simply have reported that fact and let it go, another court story on any other day, but this wasn’t just any other crime.
We had questions. We wanted to know who the judge was who made this decision and why.
We wanted to know more about the shock probation program as a whole and how popular and successful it has been.
We expected you would, too.
We couldn’t imagine any of you would commit such a crime, and we expected you would be outraged that someone who did something so awful was allowed to rejoin the daughter she allowed to live as freely as you or I do.
What ensued is perhaps the largest, broadest and deepest piece of investigative reporting this newspaper has undertaken as either The Shelby Sentinel, The Shelby News or even the Shelby Record in the 1840s.
This sort of work goes on all the time at daily newspapers, turned around in a month or less by a team of perhaps as many as three or four individuals working together, one to gather and analyze data, one or two to review records and interview principals, and the editor who oversees it all.
The 7,000 or so words plus charts and photographs you saw pulled together in the pages of The Sentinel-News in this case were the work of one reporter, Lisa King, working when she could make time from her daily pell-mell and under the whipping and driving of her old taskmaster (that would be me).
Typically we would not bore you to explain the sausage-making of the newspaper, but in this case you deserve to understand why this project dominated our news pages and why we were so committed to the story.
The answer is simple: This is what good newspapers try to do.
Part of our mission is to tell you what you don’t know and what we think you need to know, to help you understand the who, why and how of news that is vitally important. We don’t think it gets any more important than a system that allows someone who killed a baby to go free.
We expected that those of you who sat on the grand jury and had to sort through the hideous evidence to indict Brown would wonder why your judgment was shoved aside.
We expected that some of you who might have wondered why Judge Steven Mershon went so light on admitted embezzler Jody Wills would be even more lenient with a killer.
We thought some of you might wonder why in a county that sees so few felony cases actually tried in a courtroom, a high-profile case involiving a death would be reduced in a plea agreement and  then protested in futility at the perpetrator’s early release.
This is watchdog journalism of the small-town variety, the sort of effort that exposes wrongdoing, malfeasance and stupidity.
We have heard from some of you who noticed the power of this story and its depth.
Some of you liked it, and some of you didn’t.
But the most important comment I heard was from a longtime reader who said she has known Brown all her life.
She told me that she had hoped this had all blown over, that everyone makes mistakes, that she is such a sweet girl and has a wonderful child at home.
“She has such a precious little girl,” the woman said.
My response was simple: She had two little girls.