On the nightstand: Tuesday, 1/27/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Eric Moskowitz uses one Boston Marathon victim’s decision whether to have her second leg amputated to pull the reader through a fascinating, tragic story of loss and hope. Newlyweds Patrick Downs and Jessica Kensky allowed Moskowitz into their lives to witness Jess’ agonizing struggle, aided by Patrick — who also lost a leg in the blast — and by military amputees and their doctors. I’ve read several Marathon-victim narratives. This is perhaps the most finely rendered and memorable I’ve seen. (Boston Globe)
  • Rachel Aviv describes a siege mentality among Albuquerque police, where approaches to hiring and internal discipline might explain a rash of questionable shootings that never seem to yield concessions by police that at least some shootings are unjustified. (The New Yorker)
  • Jessica Pishko looks at the high overlap between women serving life without parole and domestic violence victimization and concludes survivors take the blame for circumstances caused by their abuse. And because the courts don’t adequately recognize what’s gone on. (The Atlantic)
  • Mike Reicher hits some stonewalling by the Los Angeles Police Department when he asks why one division of the department clears so many homicides without arrest or prosecution. But he takes the inquiry as far as he can, explaining the apparently dubious statistics game and its effect on victims who don’t see the accountability or answers they crave. (Los Angeles Daily News)
  • Maggie Galehouse tells how true-crime author Kathryn Casey did the research for her new book Deliver Us: Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields. In trying to determine whether one or more serial killers was responsible for a string of murders, and which murders were part of the string, Casey often found herself growing wary of drawing conclusions beyond what she really knew. (Houston Chronicle)
  • Emily Kassle uses one man’s case to illuminate the challenges male victims of campus sexual assault face, including intense shame (real men can’t be victims, after all). Her story’s subject speaks out to help other men, which has become his crusade on campus since he found out his assailant was a repeat offender and got off too easy in earlier assaults. (Huffington Post)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Crime victim series: coming soonish

I blog from time to time on themes related to my upcoming series on crime victims, but it’s been quite some time since I gave a detailed update on the project. The reasons are too mundane to go into here — let’s just say that when writers and editors act like they know when a long, complicated story will be completed and published, do NOT put money that — but rather than stay silent on the matter or make revised and equally dubious predictions, I will say this instead:

One of the factors that delayed the first story in the series concerned the safety of one of the people I’m writing about. I chose to wait until the situation was resolved rather than add to this person’s risk by publishing prematurely. (Sorry to be so vague, but I want to tell the story my own way, not in a rushed blog post.) With that situation now resolved, my editor at Slate and I are working to get the first story onto the launch pad. Meanwhile, I’ve continued reporting on the remaining six stories. Today I’m finishing a draft of Part 2, with two more right behind it (but don’t hold me to that!).

If all goes as planned (ahem), the series should start … soon. Follow me on this blog or on any of my social-media feeds (see the links on this page’s left rail) for notifications of when it starts. Meantime, here’s an early post on the series’ focus. Once it starts, I’ll provide a more detailed outline and link to an index page where all the parts will be accessible as they appear over the course of a few months.

On the nightstand: 1/23/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Johann Hari published an excerpt from his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs with an enraging and painful story of how America’s first drug warriors hounded jazz great Billie Holiday. (Politico Magazine)
  • Sadie Gurman wrote this heartbreaker about the bond between the father of one of the Colorado theater-shooting victims and the cop who carried her tiny body from the theater. (Associated Press)
  • Ellen McCarthy tells the story of Kassie Edwards, a rape victim who speaks out for her own peace of mind and to encourage other victims at a time when publicity and backlash can intimidate them. (Washington Post)
  • Scott Helman focuses on Judith Clarke but includes other criminal defense lawyers as well in his look at what motivates lawyers to represent the kinds of defendants most hated by the community. (Boston Globe Magazine)
  • Dana Goldstein takes a few words from the president’s State of the Union speech, in his all-too-brief mention of criminal-justice reform, and provides needed context to understand in what way, and why, incarceration rates and crime rates are both in decline. (Marshall Project)
  • Jennifer Gonnerman positively reviews an important book of journalism about America’s least cared-for victims, young black male homicide victims. The book, Ghettoside, by the Los Angeles Times‘ Jill Leovy, telescopes in on one case from South LA, and the LAPD detective who works to bring a killer to justice amid a culture clash between street cops and the community they’re sworn to protect. (New York Times Book Review)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Wednesday, 1/21/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Justin Peters challenges NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s reputation as a reformer with a look back at how brutality complaints got handled in his first stint in New York and in Los Angeles. The problem, says Peters: Bratton’s devotion to the broken-windows method of policing. (Slate)
  • Emily Green reports from Portland on an innovation in interviewing victims of domestic violence that’s designed to put police and victims on better footing. (Street Roots)
  • Matt Stroud travels to Charlottesville to witness rush week at the University of Virginia in the wake of the rape-prevention debate prompted by a Rolling Stone feature in which the lead example has since been discredited. Frat parties go on as usual while new rules of doubtful significance take effect. (Bloomberg BusinessWeek)
  • Seth Freed Wessler and Lisa Riordan Seville report on why it matters when the age at which young people can be charged as adults gets set below 18. They describe a young man who’d like to pursue a career in law enforcement, but first he must contend with an outstanding warrant over driving infractions that he couldn’t afford to pay for. (NBC)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: Monday, 1/19/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Ted Conover brings his skills as a writer and observer — and his time working as a prison guard at Sing Sing, the story of which he told in his groundbreaking book Newjack — to describe the use and abuse of solitary confinement at Guantanamo Bay and at most state prison systems across the country. (Vanity Fair)
  • In another long feature story on the abuse of punitive solitary confinement, Dana Liebelson focuses on what happens to juveniles when we subject them to it. The story looks at the science of how solitary especially harms’ children’s developing brains, as well as at security concerns of guards who must protect themselves and deal with incorrigible inmates. (Mother Jones)
  • Steve Inskeep interviews Tyrone Hood just after a governor’s clemency order freed him from an Illinois prison (and during his first drop-in visit from his parole officer). He also interviews Nicholas Schmidle, whose New Yorker story on Hood’s apparently wrongful conviction for murder played a part in Hood’s release. In the interview, Hood says he hopes the victim’s mother gets justice, and he swore off bitterness toward those who got him convicted. “It’s not gonna make me a better man,” he says. (NPR)
  • On the blog, I linked to the crime narratives among the finalists for this year’s National Magazine Awards and wrote about the common thread between true-crime narrative and the songwriting of Steve Earle, as revealed in a BBC News Magazine essay that Earle penned on his first exposure to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

“Flowing from heart to hand to pen”

Although this blog’s focus is on narrative journalism, it’s worth taking a detour from nonfiction now and then — especially when the storytelling concerns one of the great true-crime narratives.

BBC News Magazine has just published this essay on “the book that changed me.” The book is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. And the writer it changed is Steve Earle. I’ve written before about my love for Americana singer-songwriting and the common thread I see between that work and the writing I celebrate on this blog. Both, at their best, show us the underside of life in a way that contradicts easy judgments and emotions. No one does that better than Earle, whose own struggles with drug addiction (which landed him a short stint in a Tennessee prison) inform a song catalog rich with murder ballads, ne’er do wells, and human flaws.

While Earle has long been a vocal opponent of the death penalty — his most notable song on that theme, about a Texas inmate he befriended, appears in the video below — I’d never heard his explanation for where that all started for him. That’s the point of his BBC News Magazine essay, in which Earle tells of discovering In Cold Blood at a young age and devouring the book, which he quotes at length.

Earle closes his essay with his reaction to the final execution scene, showing that the book influenced more than just Earle’s position on one justice-policy question:

I had never read anything remotely like it. I had enough science fiction under my belt by the time I was 12 to understand that words could challenge me to think, to consider ideas and attitudes that would have never occurred to me otherwise, but this writer was dragging me around by the heartstrings and it was that meeting of my heart and my mind that would ultimately coalesce in my decades-long involvement with the campaign against the death penalty around the world. But it all began that day when I finished reading and I closed the book that changed me and discovered, much to my surprise, that despite my compassion for the Clutters and my horror at the atrocity inflicted on them, I held some sympathy and perhaps even more profoundly confusing, genuine empathy for Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, even though no two characters less deserving of either had ever been committed to paper.

Why?

The power of intellect and humanity flowing from heart to hand to pen to page.

And I could put myself on Death Row, alongside two cold-blooded murderers because Truman Capote could.

ASME’s crime finalists

The National Magazine Award finalists — aka the Ellies, or the ASMEs (after the American Society of Magazine Editors) — have been announced. Given their status as the top award for magazine journalism, I’ve plucked out the reported crime narratives that made the cut. All of these appeared on this blog in my critiques (found mostly here) or my Criminal-Justice Nightstand Reading lists. Here they are with links, and with my congratulations to these talented reporters and writers:

Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly, “The Witness,” about a woman suffering in the aftermath of witnessing too many executions.

Andrew Solomon, The New Yorker, “The Reckoning,” about the father of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza.

Michael Finkel, GQ, “The Last True Hermit,” about the man in Maine who lived in isolation, breaking in and stealing provisions, for decades.

Evan Hughes, The Atavist, “The Trials of White Boy Rick,” about a juvenile lifer caught up in Detroit’s drug trade.

David Bernstein and Noah Isackson, Chicago magazine, “The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates,” a deep and savvy look at crime stats.

Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker, “The Hunt for El Chapo,” about the Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera.

Emily Yoffe, Slate, “The Campus Rape Overcorrection,” on how university rules can be unjust toward rape suspects.

Luke Malone, Medium, “You’re 16. You’re a pedophile,” about the lack of treatment options.

(Hat tip to Longform.org for speedily collecting the links.)

On the nightstand: Wednesday, 1/14/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Cheryl Thompson’s data-driven reporting shows that 37 witnesses in the D.C. area were murdered for cooperating with authorities (or when their killers feared they would snitch). Although half had no protection from law enforcement, her story shows through several examples how the witness’ own mistakes also contributed to the 10-year death toll. (Washington Post)
  • Hans Anderson looks back at the case of an edgy artist, Mike Diana, who got charged multiple times with the crime of obscenity. The story — well-timed, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the ensuing debate about the magazine’s cartoons — explains the practical effect of the lines drawn by the Supreme Court between protected art and speech and outlawed obscenity. (The Life of the Law)
  • Julie K. Brown conducted an extensive investigation using records and interviews to assemble this story about a Florida prison inmate’s murder by his cellmate. The story raises questions about complicity of prison guards. (Miami Herald)
  • On the blog, I wrote about a remarkable documentary aired on Independent Lens, and available for streaming until February 10, that examines what it means for someone to seek accountability to his victims and redemption simultaneously.

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

“On the other side of a shotgun”

Early in the documentary Evolution of a Criminal, filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe decodes the meaning behind the title by revealing exactly what crime he committed. He does that by filming with a hidden camera as he knocks on the door of one of the victims of the bank robbery he committed at age 16, and for which he served in a Texas prison from 1998 to 2001. Ten years after the crime, he approaches each of his victims to apologize — a gesture that not only makes for compelling scenes (especially with one victim, who becomes a key character on camera), but one that speaks to the film’s ultimate purpose. Monroe explained it this way in a Q&A:

The idea to make this documentary came to me during my third year in the grad film program at NYU. I was actually at a bank, making a deposit, when I thought someone was going to come inside and rob it. I stood in line filled with anxiety because I thought this day would be the day of reckoning. I believe in karma and I just knew that I was going to one day experience being on the other side of a shotgun.

Fortunately, the robbery was a figment of my imagination, but the feeling, the anxiety never went away. I thought about the customers in the bank the day I participated in a robbery a decade prior. I wondered about their experience and was ashamed that so many years had gone by without an apology.

The result is a compelling contemplation on accountability and redemption as Monroe interviews his victims, his prosecutor, and his family about what he put himself and everyone else through. Raised in a hard-working family, an honors student with a good mind, he let his frustration with his family’s poverty lead him to commit a rash, get-rich-quick crime that could have turned out much worse than it did, for his victims and for him.

Evolution of a Criminal makes no excuses. It explains why Monroe did what he did, but hammers home the point that he accepts the blame he deserves while seeking to prove that he is more than that one bad act.

The film aired on PBS last night and is available from Independent Lens for streaming here through February 10,

On the nightstand: Saturday, 1/10/15

Recent good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories and original reporting about crime, crime victims, and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Tobias Jones traces each step of the elaborate, four-year murder investigation in Italy that used DNA evidence in unlikely ways to charge a suspect in the murder of a young gymnast. (The Guardian)
  • Tim Dickinson catalogs the ways in which the war on drugs is getting rolled back, from voter initiatives to executive action cutting sentences, decriminalizing, and contemplating legalization. (Rolling Stone)
  • In another Rolling Stone feature, Josh Eells tells the personal and professional tragedy that unfolded when the son of a South Texas sheriff used his position in a drug-enforcement unit to skim drugs and cash from his targets. (Rolling Stone)
  • Molly Crabapple spends time in New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court and comes away believing that an approach meant to treat sex workers like victims rather than like criminals ends up breeding disrespect for the women, and changing little about how police treat them. (Vice)

This periodic digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business