Dan Barry Defends Not Telling Readers His Homeless Hero Is a Convicted Sex Offender

Here's an update on a previous story about columnist Dan Barry's controversial story on Friday's front page, romanticizing John Freitas, the "chief" of a homeless tent city in Rhode Island. Although Barry knew Freitas was a convicted child rapist, he left the detail out, sticking to the hobo script, saying only:

He did prison time decades ago, worked for years as a factory supervisor,then became homeless for all the familiar, complicated reasons.

On Friday night (hat tip News Busters commenter CobraMan), a nytimes.com commenter pointed to a previous news story revealing Freitas was a twice-convicted sex offender.

Barry left his own comment, explaining why he'd left the information out. (The very day the story appeared, Freitas was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender in Rhode Island.)

Some readers have asked why I did not include the nature of Mr. Freitas's criminal past in my column about a homeless encampment under a bridge in Providence, Rhode Island. A lot of thought went into the decision, which followed conversations with both Mr. Freitas and my editor. Here's what it comes down to.

I knew of Mr. Freitas's conviction involving sexual assault on a child because another homeless person told me about it, and because I found reference to it on the Internet. I asked Mr. Freitas, and he was straightforward about it. He said that he was convicted, that he served four years in prison, and that he has been out of prison for more than 20 years, trying to rebuild his life. So much time has lapsed, he said, that he no longer is required to register as a sex offender. [Editor's Note - Barry was evidently unaware of Freitas's Friday night arrest at the time he posted his reply. Rhode Island authorities evidently take issue with Freitas's assertion that he was "no longer required" to register.]

He said he understood if I had to report his past, but he said this would become the story, rather than the nature of the camp and life in homelessness. He said everyone in the camp knew about his past and accepted it. Also, there were no children allowed in the camp.

Barry was swayed by Freitas's sob story:

He asked at what point is the past the past; at what point can he be judged as a man who has stayed out of trouble and is trying to care for people who, like him, are homeless.

Barry explained that given Freitas was not in a position of public responsibility, but was a "homeless man living under an abandoned bridge in Providence, with this disturbing crime 25 years behind him," he felt that he'd made the "right and ethical decision in referring to his time in prison long ago, and leaving it at that."