On April 10, The New York Times published a crossword puzzle constructed by a man named Lonnie Burton. Burton is locked up right here in Washington, at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center outside Aberdeen.
In an accompanying blog post, the newspaper noted that Burton’s puzzle creation was a milestone: He’s the first incarcerated person to ever have his or her crossword published by the Times.
Will Shortz, the preeminent editor of the Times’ crossword puzzle, said he believes in second chances and was happy to have an opportunity to publish Burton’s puzzle.
“I’m a strong believer in redemption and the capacity of people to change. No matter what Lonnie has done in the past, which landed him in prison, I admire him for what he’s doing now,” Shortz wrote on Monday. Shortz added that he’s received puzzles from inmates before, but never any that were up to snuff.
Burton himself framed the puzzle as a sign of his attempt to better himself.
“I am in prison in Washington state and have been for 26 years. I did some pretty bad things in my youth, but now am dedicated to changing my life, seeking redemption and forgiveness and making amends for my actions,” Burton wrote. Burton said he came up with the theme of his puzzle while teaching another inmate how to construct crosswords.
The Times noted that the puzzle is especially impressive given that Burton did not have access to the internet.
However, neither Burton nor Shortz specified one fact of the story — why landed Burton in prison: In the early 1990s, a judge sentenced Burton to 46-1/2 years for the rape of a 15-year-old Federal Way boy in 1991, among other crimes. This omitted fact did not sit well with some New York Times readers, according to a blog post by the Times’ public editor.
Wrote one reader: “I very much doubt that if anyone associated with (or any of their family members) the NY Times was raped, and then that rapist submitted a piece to the NY Times, that the NY Times would ever even considered printing the item.”
Many others expressed similar thoughts.
Public Editor Liz Spayd doesn’t think it was wrong for Shortz to publish the puzzle, but she wrote that Shortz should have disclosed Burton’s crime.
“An accompanying note by Shortz provided the opportunity for him, in a more personal way, to be upfront with readers; to explain why he felt, even in the face of such crimes, that Burton should get this small piece of satisfaction. I understand Shortz’ reflex to hold back such dark information given the levity of a puzzle, but not doing so may have made matters worse. It left some readers with the feeling of being tricked,” Spayd wrote.
Daniel Person is news editor of Seattle Weekly.