THE old mystery-story question - Whodunit? - will be getting new real-life answers here next month when a newspaper listing all local arrests makes its debut Oct. 1. As far as can be determined, The Informer will be the first such publication of its kind. The paper will use a police-blotter format to name suspects in Pinellas County criminal cases ranging from murder, rape, and abuse to drunken driving, drugs, and shoplifting. Although legal experts caution that such a publication raises questions about the rights of those accused but not yet convicted, publisher Ray Aden says his motive is not to sensationalize crime but to fight it.
``We're living in an age of coverup,'' Mr. Aden explains. ``The average law-abiding citizen has no idea of what's going on in the community. They have no idea of what the law-enforcing agencies are confronted with on a daily basis. And they have no idea of the good that the human services agencies do.''
To help spread that kind of information, the twice-monthly paper will include articles on subjects such as victims' rights, rape prevention, and what constitutes abuse. It will also list human services agencies in the St. Petersburg area where people can get help.
``One of the things we want to convey is, `Don't be afraid to ask for help,''' says Aden, a soft-spoken Nebraskan who moved to Florida 22 years ago. ``And don't be afraid to talk to a policeman.''
With an initial printing run of 30,000 per issue, the 89-cent tabloid will be distributed through 300 convenience stores and supermarkets. Aden expects its introductory 36-page size to expand to 48 pages, half editorial and half advertising.
Sitting in a brown-carpeted office in the stucco building that houses his informal ``newsroom,'' Aden explains that the impetus for the paper came nine months ago. A public opinion sampling he conducted revealed that 72 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the amount of crime reporting they were receiving in daily papers. And 83 percent said they were dissatisfied with crime reports in weeklies.
Carmella Bonefas, one of The Informer's seven staff members, uses herself as a typical example. ``I was really not aware of how many people are arrested,'' she says. ``That was just another world. ... But when you see this information right in front of you, it hits you and you say, `Wow, I didn't know this was going on.' I think it will make people aware.''
Although lists of arrests are a matter of public record, a publication like The Informer raises questions of privacy, since not all arrests lead to conviction.
``A person is always concerned about that,'' Aden acknowledges. ``But it hasn't been a big concern, because we're on the same footing as all the other news media.''
As one precaution, each page of listings will carry a disclaimer at the top. One reads: ``NOTE: Persons arrested often are found innocent in a court of law.'' Another variation states: ``Persons arrested often have their cases dismissed.'' In addition, Aden says, ``As a service to the innocent and the acquitted, we will, if they request, write an article that would let them tell their side of the story. And we'd give it a prominent position in the paper.''
Still, the potential danger of publishing offenders' names became apparent last month when a newspaper in Brockton, Mass., went public with a list of men who had patronized local prostitutes. One of the men, a husband and father, committed suicide.
Does Aden worry about similar situations? He pauses for a moment, then says quietly, ``I guess if the man hadn't done that, he wouldn't have had his name in the paper.''
Speaking of Aden's new venture, Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says, ``We support his right to publish if he wishes, and would do so in a court of law if necessary. We cautioned him that he may be subjecting those who are merely accused of criminal offenses to the stigma and the hardship of being viewed as guilty.
``It's a matter of public record,'' she continues, ``and as a private individual he has a right to do this. But it could have dire consequences for individuals. In the name of humanity, he may wish to alter the nature of the publication to reflect only the names of those who have been convicted and found guilty.''
George Rahdert, an attorney who handles First Amendment cases with the firm of Rahdert and Anderson in St. Petersburg, says, ``As long as he prints those facts, it's true information, and there's no law, in my judgment, that prohibits the publication of the truth. As a practical matter, he is kind of playing with blasting caps. It's the kind of thing that people will be very upset about if he gets it wrong.
But, Mr. Rahdert adds, ``The law should not dictate editorial judgment. Under our First Amendment system, we have to leave editors free to make their own decisions about what should be acts of self-restraint.''
Here in the St. Petersburg area, pre-publication reaction among potential advertisers has been mixed. Grayson Darr, marketing director, says, ``Some people don't like the idea, and some people love the idea.''
Elsewhere, the newspaper is already striking a responsive chord. A woman in Ohio wrote to Aden to say that she plans to start a similar paper called The Identifier. And a man in Louisiana has expressed interest in publishing one in his area.
Aden remains convinced that his publication can play a positive role, even spurring readers to become involved in neighborhood-watch efforts and crime-stopper programs.
``Our findings tell us that if the public is informed, they're going to be supportive of these law-enforcing agencies and even join with them in an effort to make their community a better and safer place to live,'' he says. ``The war against crime will never be won unless the public joins in the effort. That's really our goal.''