Sandy Hook’s hidden story

TraceLaw and news nerd that I am, I find great satisfaction in discovering new angles to litigation stories that others have missed. Last February, I did that for The Trace in a preview of the coming fight over the legal claims made by the families of the Sandy Hook mass shooting victims. Now that the judge has ruled, I revisited the topic with this analysis, published today.

The remarkable thing to me is that no news reports that I saw ever homed in on the same issue that drew my attention. That’s probably because it’s hard to explain to a lay audience in terms that are both accurate and understandable. It’s just as hard for a layman like me to grasp it in the first place, but that’s the kind of challenge that first drew me to covering the law and that still excites me. As I said, I’m a big old nerd.

I won’t repeat what’s explained in both stories, but I will try to summarize what issue I’m talking about (this is yet another test of my explanatory abilities). The lawsuit filed by the victims’ families against the maker and sellers of the gun that Adam Lanza used, a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle, faces the same obstacle that any case against the gun industry does, thanks to Congress’ passage in 2005 of a law granting broad legal immunity to the industry. The law allows some lawsuits that fit limited exceptions. All the coverage of the Sandy Hook case focused on just one of the exceptions claimed in this lawsuit — a claim that by marketing military-style weapons to civilians, the industry has committed “negligent entrustment,” which means giving a dangerous thing to someone who shouldn’t have it — but that was the more far-fetched of the two. The other one, which I focused on thanks to an article I ran across and then my conversation with its law-professor author, allows lawsuits that allege actions that violate laws concerning the sale of guns. How the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers made that argument, and how the judge reacted to it, were the untold story about this lawsuit.

Who cares? Well, I submit anyone who cares about this lawsuit or about the ongoing debate to repeal the immunity law should care, because the argument I wrote about came closer to keeping the Sandy Hook case alive than the negligent entrustment claim. Closer, but not close enough, as the judge has now narrowly but decisively agreed to throw the case out.

I’m glad The Trace provided me with a platform to tell that story, nerdy though it may have been.

Caught in the middle

tap_new_logo6I’ve written in the past about a scenario I find important and intriguing: cities where police departments are led by relatively progressive, reform-friendly chiefs who find themselves caught between protesters and their own departments’ history and rank-and-file officers. That was the case when I wrote about New York City and Minneapolis. And it’s the case in my latest story, about Charlotte, North Carolina.

I wrote for The American Prospect’s website (a new client) about the state of police reform in Charlotte in the wake of the fatal shooting last week of Keith Lamont Scott. In particular, I address the various approaches to improving police training and community relations, and why police reform will continue to be such a difficult chore even in places where the department ostensibly wants to improve.

Some people like the clarity of positions at either pole. I’m inclined to think the truth can always be found in the gray areas between.

A red state struggles with reform

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-42-22-pmWhat constitutes real criminal-justice reform?

Advocates have warned for years that it’s a mistake to limit sentencing reforms to nonviolent drug offenses. Marie Gottschalk explores this in depth in a penetrating critique of the reform movement in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, where she talks about the policies aimed only at “non, non, nons” (nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses).

In fact, dividing the criminal world into violent and nonviolent is a “demonstrably false” construct to begin with, as Katherine Beckett argued in this recent American Prospect article, in part because drug offenders often have committed violence, while violent offenders are among the least likely to commit new offenses.

And yet public opinion favors reducing our over-reliance on prisons — but not for the majority of prisoners who are serving long sentences for violence and other serious offenses. Perhaps that’s because the public believes, against all evidence, that crime remains in a perpetual upward spiral (actually, and despite alarming spikes in some cities’ violent crime recently, crime of all types has fallen dramatically for the past 20-plus years).

In my latest article, written for TakePart, I look at the ups and downs of criminal-justice reform in a deep-red state, Oklahoma, and ask whether its efforts are doomed to irrelevance. The state can barely make progress toward the most minimal drug-offense reforms, much less toward reforms that might put a bigger dent in a system that practically everyone involved agrees is unaffordable, ineffective, and overly punitive.

The story is about more than just Oklahoma. It’s a look at justice reinvestment, a nonpartisan approach to reducing mass incarceration through policies aimed at achieving lower crime and lower imprisonment. Researchers in dozens of states have found savings in reducing the use of prisons, and advised plowing those savings into crime prevention programs. Conservatives from groups like Right on Crime support such efforts. For some on the left, that’s enough reason to oppose it, or at least look at it very skeptically. But, like many other red states that have gone before it, Oklahoma is trying to take these baby steps before making bolder moves. The question is whether success, as they define it, will be enough.

The timing of this assessment of Oklahoma’s fitful progress coincidentally comes as Congress admits it is too divided to take up the modest reforms — focused mainly on nonviolent drug offenses — that it has wrestled with, and watered down in efforts at compromise, for the past couple of years.

My story appears in a package of stories on criminal justice titled “Violence and Redemption,” with stories on rehabilitation programs for people who committed violent offenses (by Rebecca McCray), forgiveness and victim-offender dialog (by Jessica Pishko), and several others as part of TakePart’s “Big Issues” series, an ambitious project using longform journalism to explore … yes, big issues. This was my second story for TakePart, which is part of the documentary and film production company Participant Media. Last December I wrote about police reform, with a look at what’s happening in Minneapolis. I appreciate this publication’s dedication to telling in-depth stories about criminal justice, as part of its larger agenda promoting social awareness. What my editors and I liked about both stories is that they defied easy answers. They are, instead, about the struggle to address crime in constructive ways — and in ways that move beyond the broken systems of the past.

Prison buildup: the documentary

crimereportThe Crime Report today published my Q&A with Regan Hines, director of a new documentary on the massive expansion of America’s prison population. The film, Incarcerating US, traces the history of sentencing policy since the 1970s, laying most of the blame for that on war-on-drugs policies like mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

In my interview, I challenge Hines’ thesis, ask why he told the story the way he does, and question why the film is more a work of advocacy than journalism. But don’t let my skepticism suggest that I disliked the film. To the contrary, I thought it was deeply affecting and powerful, especially scenes in which inmates speak to their children through a camera provided by a service that delivers video messages home.

Starting today, Incarcerating US is available for downloads and is showing in select theaters in the coming months (the film’s website has the details). Here’s the trailer:

The freelancing life

My friend and former colleague Brian Moritz invited me to appear on his podcast, The Other 51, to talk about freelance journalism. Here’s the link.

We talked about the challenges, frustrations, and satisfaction of doing the kind of work I do without the stability of a steady paycheck. And we did it while sipping a delicious microbrew on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, undercutting some of my woe-is-me chatter. Enjoy.

A different Ferguson effect

We journalists like to talk about the distinction between a topic and a story. The topic of my latest story, in this Sunday’s New York Times business section, is the role employers can play in hiring more former prisoners for good jobs after their release. I developed that topic from chatter I heard in the criminal-justice policy world and from asking a question, after reading umpteen stories about the desperate need to boost employment numbers as a prisoner-reentry strategy. The question: What’s in it for employers?

Once I knew that was the topic I wanted to write about, I needed to find an example of a place where the problem is being tackled in a creative, market-driven way. What drew me to St. Louis was the merits of the program I focus on. It is, all my sources agreed, the most ambitious and effective of its kind.

But its location makes for an irony. It’s not one that I explored in the story, but that’s what blogs are for. That this program blossomed in the shadow of Ferguson, Missouri, speaks to a more complicated narrative about that region’s approach to crime than the one we’ve heard again and again after the death of Michael Brown.

I’m not saying the Brown protests lack authenticity. Whatever the interpretation of the facts surrounding Brown’s death, it’s clear that the systems of justice in Ferguson and St. Louis County were exposed as severely unfair and racist in multiple state and federal probes.

And I’m not saying that the program I wrote about is a response to the Ferguson controversy. In fact, it started in 2002, long before the protests in the St. Louis area.

But it’s an example of how the common outside view of a place can obscure contradictions. Though in the story I focus on the business rationale for this program, what’s just as interesting to me is that the people running it are motivated to change lives for the better. Their primary job is to enforce conditions of supervision once someone gets out of prison. But, to do that job, they choose to focus on helping those people adjust and creating conditions that make it more likely for them to succeed.

The upshot of the story is how difficult and detailed such attempts can be. But the underlying message is just as important: Someone in a position of power is trying, on a fairly grand scale.

A death in prison

Marion Berry 4-29-14
Marion Berry in a 2014 prison photo

I got word this week that Marion “Marvin” Berry has died in prison at age 44. Berry was incarcerated for 29 years and five months, since the age of 15, when he and another 15-year-old, Gary Brown, were arrested on charges of kidnapping, raping, and killing 26-year-old Cathy O’Daniel.

I wrote about the case in the first installment of my series for Slate on crime victims. In that story, I focused on O’Daniel’s mother Linda White and her brand of radical forgiveness, which she has shown toward Berry’s co-defendant, Gary Brown.

Berry never experienced the kind of turnaround and redemption that Brown earned for himself. Instead, his years in Texas prisons were marked by trouble. Just five years into his 55-year sentence, he got another 12 1/2 years tacked on for possession of a homemade knife. After more fights with other prisoners and guards, and incidents of self-mutilation, Berry’s minimum sentence stood at 64 years. If all went well — and, with Berry, it never did — he was due to be released in 2051.

A Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, confirmed to me in an email today that Berry died at the Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo, a prison that houses prisoners in solitary confinement or requiring mental health care. Clark wrote:

On March 27, 2016, Berry was found unresponsive in his cell. Staff began life saving measures as he was taken to unit medical. EMS arrived on scene and unit medical briefed them on the situation. A physician later arrived and pronounced the offender deceased at 8:37 pm. The preliminary cause of death was natural causes.

White was the first to let me know of Berry’s death, when I coincidentally reached out to say hi and to ask if she’s heard lately from Brown. Texas’ victim-notification policies had served their purpose, and she received a letter promptly giving her the news. Speaking of Berry, White wrote in an email, “His was a very sad life, to say the least.”

As for Brown, he has remained out of touch with White, which was how I ended the story when it was published last June. When I arranged a meeting between White and Brown, and for months afterward, Brown was doing all he could to fulfill his promise to White to live a law-abiding, productive life after his release from prison. I expect and hope that is still the case. No matter what, he’s done far more than his partner in crime to turn bad into good and to show that some lives can be redeemed.

For the rest of my series, go here.

Another look at a hometown tragedy

Not all of my stories for The Trace touch on my current main reporting interest in crime victims. But my latest does. And they’re victims whose story I know well from past articles I’ve written, and from an even more personal connection: the crime took place in my hometown of Webster, New York, involving people whose social circles intersect with my friends and family.

The December 24, 2012, ambush of volunteer firefighters in a neighborhood on the Lake Ontario shore killed two (Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka) and seriously wounded two others (Ted Scardino and Joe Hofstetter). Three years ago, when I was working on what I hoped would be a book about the crime — I have since put that project on hold, I hope not forever — I wrote two stories about the crime’s aftermath. One, a cover story in Pacific Standard, looked at  the psychological growth that can be sparked by the trauma of such an event. The other, in the magazine where I once worked as an editor, The American Lawyer, told of Scardino’s efforts to press for tougher federal laws on straw purchases of weapons.

Straw purchases — where someone who can pass a background check illegally supplies weapons to someone barred from buying a gun — once again are the subject of my new story for The Trace. Using the lawsuit that the victims and their families brought against Gander Mountain, the retailer that sold the guns that ended up in the Webster killer’s hands, I examine a tactic used by plaintiffs’ lawyers to try to win these cases. The tactic: comparing a retailer’s behavior to industry standards promoted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to show whether a gun seller took enough care to prevent a straw purchase.

When Chiapperini vs. Gander Mountain was filed on the victims’ behalf by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the social-media peanut gallery criticized the victims for trying to cash in on their tragedy, or simply for looking in the wrong place to lay blame. If the firefighters’ and families’ allegations prove correct about what Gander Mountain clerks did and didn’t do, then the plaintiffs in this lawsuit will convincingly win that argument — not that everyone can be convinced to change their mind when guns are the subject.

The victims said when they filed the suit that they want this to bring about reforms, and to help other people. That’s a common impulse when tragedy strikes. I’ll continue to follow this case to see if the victims ever reach their goal.

Dick Heller, sore winner

In my previous story for The Trace, about Ted Cruz’s record as a gun-rights lawyer, I brushed up on my history of the most important Second Amendment case in history, D.C. v. Heller. In that story, the case was just one of several I looked at. Now I’ve taken a deeper dive into the 2008 case, with this newly published profile of Dick Heller himself.

This story is what’s known in the business as a write-around. That means the subject of the story wouldn’t talk to me. Rather than let him have veto power over the story, I forged ahead, gleaning his background and views from books, articles, and my own interviews with others who have worked for or against him.

The result is, I hope, a fair portrait of an important historical figure whose controversial politics and colorful personal backstory bring to light aspects of the Heller case — a case that’s now very much back in the news, with the battle on over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, the Heller majority opinion author.

My central conclusion: Heller’s politics, combined with his frustration over D.C.’s continued efforts to regulate guns, pushed him toward the absolutist end of the gun-rights spectrum — and away from the case that bears his name.

One aspect of the story I didn’t get a chance to explore this time are the arguments over whether Heller might be overturned if a Democratically appointed justice replaces Scalia, and if so, what difference that would make. Here’s one take on that. I hope to revisit that topic in a later story with views from all sides.

Fact-checking Ted Cruz’s gun-law record

I spent an 11-year chunk of my career in Texas. But I left that state when Ted Cruz was still in law school. So I have not been there to watch his political rise first hand. Still, I’ve remained interested in the place and visited multiple times to report on stories there. And, like everyone, I can’t take my eyes off this year’s presidential campaign.

So I was glad to get an assignment from The Trace on Ted Cruz’s record as a lawyer handling gun-rights cases. He has made that work a central point in his campaign, but as my new story on that record explains, he’s inflated his role in key cases while skipping past some inconvenient details about compromise positions that he no longer seems to hold.

I plan to write more for The Trace about the legal battles over gun safety and regulations, past and present. Reporting on this story (and on my previous one, about the federal law giving the gun industry immunity from civil lawsuits) has given me a quick refresher course in that world. I look forward to continuing my education and finding new stories to tell about how legal policy and litigation is shaping gun-rights battles today.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business