When Fox News correspondent Rita Cosby decided to approach "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, she didn't exactly treat him like a despicable mass murderer.
"Your personal story and spiritual growth inspired me to write to you," Cosby told Berkowitz in a letter. Sometimes, she wrote, "the Lord calls on individuals at various times to serve him and serve his people. . . . I believe as a Christian your help is a great service. . . .
"You have a testimony that must be heard. . . . Our world is crying and you can help."
Berkowitz, who killed six people and wounded seven in the mid-1970s in New York, responded with a three-page letter about the Washington sniper after receiving Cosby's note Wednesday.. He thanked her "for the kind things you said."
Cosby defended her effort yesterday, saying: "I didn't say, 'Hey, you're a terrific guy, I think you're wonderful.' I touched on the fact that he says he's now a Christian and that this is an opportunity to do something positive."
In her Fox reports about the exchange, Cosby said, she repeatedly pointed out Berkowitz's criminal record. "I don't think there was anything wrong in appealing to his Christian instincts. I don't think that in any way we glorified him."
As the Washington sniper has continued his rampage, the nonstop television coverage has increasingly been filled with all manner of experts speculating about who the sniper is -- young, middle-aged, married, loner, video game addict, Vietnam veteran, terrorist -- and occasionally touching on previous serial killers such as Berkowitz. Some anchors have asked ex-profilers and ex-detectives questions that no one can answer.
Fox's Alan Colmes: "Will this person strike again?"
CNN's Connie Chung: "So will he cease and desist?"
NBC's Matt Lauer: "Is this the type of person, based on the 'I am God,' the Tarot card, that would be taken alive?"
CNN's Larry King: "Would he be inclined to watch this program?"
In a life-and-death story that has thrived on maximum interest and minimum information -- such as yesterday's saturation coverage of the arrests of two undocumented immigrants who turned out to have nothing to do with the sniper -- Berkowitz represented something of a fresh angle.
In his typed letter from a prison in Fallsburg, N.Y., Berkowitz -- who once taunted police with letters to the New York tabloids -- said that "my heart is heavy over the loss of innocent lives. . . . For me, of course, it is as if I am reliving a nightmare. The past -- my past -- is so painful for me to deal with. It is a time I'd prefer to forget. Now it is all coming back in all its ugliness and horror."
Berkowitz did offer this analysis: "For more than a week now I feel that I have been feeling this person's anger and rage toward law enforcement. . . . I felt this person has a tremendous rage against the FBI (or any one of the various law enforcement organizations that are in this area), and maybe toward the U.S. government in general."
But, he added, "I stress that I do not have any idea of why this person is doing what he's doing, or even if more than one individual is involved."
Cosby, an aggressive reporter who obtained the first interview with the flight attendant who said she had an affair with Gary Condit, noted that she also received a letter from Timothy McVeigh before he was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. She did not rule out seeking a prison interview with Berkowitz, even while stressing that she is not glossing over his violent past.
"What he did is absolutely appalling," Cosby said. "But I do think he can provide some interesting insight into the mind of a killer, what motivates them. . . . Maybe this madman in the Washington, D.C., area may look up to someone like Berkowitz."