On the nightstand: Wednesday, 11/26/14

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:

  • Simone Weichselbaum reports from Cincinnati on whether a model of repaired police-community relations is all it’s cracked up to be. The verdict (not quite) is made more interesting by the telling of the history and the descriptions of life now on the streets.  (Marshall Project)
  • Craig Lemoult visits Jimmy Greene, father of Newtown victim Ana Márquez-Greene, to hear how his work as a jazz composer and performer reflects his loss. The result is a tear-jerker of a remembrance, including Ana’s friends in a children’s choir. (NPR)
  • In Act One of This American Life this week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives come under fire for its sting operations — not for the usual reason (over-reaching) but for botching them start to finish. The story is based on the “Backfire” series by John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (This American Life)

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.

After #Ferguson decision, we need a better story

When ABC News last night cut away from the Missouri press conference just at the moment when the prosecutor began explaining the evidence that led a grand jury to no-bill Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, I clicked off the TV in frustration. I didn’t need to hear George Stephanopoulos and Dan Abrams restate what I just heard. So I decided to call it a night (such is the fate of the extreme-early riser). By morning, I hoped, I would get something even better than the prosecutor’s selective, partisan account, and better than having to sift through a mountain of documents myself. I would read stories by journalists who have followed the Michael Brown killing closely and who could summarize the new evidence, compare it to what else is known, and present a coherent narrative of what just happened.

I’m still hoping for that. At The Washington Post, Terrence McCoy distilled Wilson’s testimony in a readable story. But it cries out for a cross-examining narrator, one who might, for example, point out that Wilson’s version of what started the fight at the car might face contradictions about whether he suspected Brown’s role in a robbery and whether Wilson provoked a confrontation with a polite invitation to Brown to take to the sidewalk. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters strung together a number of accounts from the grand jury testimony, but it’s nearly impossible for me to understand how claims about critical versions of the events — for example, whether Brown was reaching into his waistband as he charged at Wilson — were deemed more credible than others. Erik Ekholm of The New York Times homed in on this critical issue, prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s assertion about why the grand jury believed some previously unknown witnesses’ versions over others’. But it will take a lot more time and effort to explore how some testimony got discarded.

Since before last night’s announcement, some reporters have done a good job at explaining the legal definitions of the various levels of homicide charges possible: what evidence it would take to find that Wilson probably committed at least one of those crimes. But what those statutory questions fail to address — and here’s the big disconnect between the reactions of protesters and police supporters — is what difference it makes whether Wilson was justified in starting the incident in the first place. While the law looks most carefully at questions about deadly force once the confrontation turned violent, common sense (and a sense of history about police-community conflicts) dictates that we take a few steps back in the chronology to see who did what to make this thing explode. Though there may be no guilt in the narrow case considered by the law, there very well could be guilt in a broader sense — whether this was a needless confrontation that spun out of control.

In the swirl of competing narratives, anger, disgust, and regret, it’s impossible for one breaking-news account produced on deadline overnight to address, much less answer, all these questions and more. I wonder how many will be open to listening once some talented reporters and writers have had the time to do justice to this story.

On the nightstand: Monday, 11/24/14

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:

  • Liz Robbins uses several women’s stories to zoom in on the details of how the 10-year-old Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, New York, looks at arrested sex workers as victims rather than as criminals. This is what justice can look like when solving problems takes priority over punishment. (The New York Times)
  • Gilbert King, whose book Devil in the Grove inspired The Marshall Project’s name (dedicated to the hero of King’s book, Thurgood Marshall), pens the first “Looking Back” article for the new site. He chooses a case that Marshall lost. But it illuminates Marshall’s skills, character, and motivation as a civil rights lawyer. (Marshall Project)
  • Erika Hayasaki explores scientific and legal doubts about the reliability of eyewitness testimony through a harrowing murder case now facing a 6th Circuit challenge. Eye-catching fact: nearly three-quarters of DNA-enabled exonerations featured false eyewitness testimony. Makes you wonder how many other wrongful convictions occurred where a lack of DNA evidence means we’ll never know. (P.S. – Can’t blame the writer, but what a hyped, not to mention ungrammatical, headline: “The End of Eyewitness Testimonies”) (Newsweek)
  • On the blog, I critiqued the crime story everyone’s talking about: Samantha Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone feature on University of Virginia’s appalling mistreatment of victims reporting rapes. The victim-silencing goes beyond the university, though, to fellow students who don’t want their precious Greek social world to come crashing down.

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.

Victim, heal thyself through silence

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 10.15.55 AMIn her new Rolling Stone feature on rape culture at the University of Virginia, Sabrina Rubin Erdely starts with horrifying descriptions of frats as rape traps. Then the story turns to institutional flaws that are equally damaging to victims: a process that pretends to be victim-centered but in fact serves the ultimate goal of preventing a prestigious school like UVA from being known as “the rape school.”

Here’s a key passage from the story that explains how the university lays that trap after young women have fallen into the rape trap:

When Jackie finished talking, [Dean Nicole Eramo, head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board,] comforted her, then calmly laid out her options. If Jackie wished, she could file a criminal complaint with police. Or, if Jackie preferred to keep the matter within the university, she had two choices. She could file a complaint with the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, to be decided in a “formal resolution” with a jury of students and faculty, and a dean as judge. Or Jackie could choose an “informal resolution,” in which Jackie could simply face her attackers in Eramo’s presence and tell them how she felt; Eramo could then issue a directive to the men, such as suggesting counseling. Eramo presented each option to Jackie neutrally, giving each equal weight. She assured Jackie there was no pressure – whatever happened next was entirely her choice.

Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. “If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don’t want to be part of, frankly, we’d be concerned that we would get fewer reports,” says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime – something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do – the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.

“This is an alarming trend that I’m seeing on campuses,” says Laura Dunn of the advocacy group SurvJustice. “Schools are assigning people to victims who are pretending, or even thinking, they’re on the victim’s side, when they’re actually discouraging and silencing them. Advocates who survivors love are part of the system that is failing to address sexual violence.”

Erdely proves her point by digging up the hard numbers. Of 38 reported sexual assaults in the last academic year, nine followed through with “complaints.” Twenty-nine “evaporated.” And these are the victims who actually took the step of coming forward. Other victims tell of the pressure — from fellow students and from the university itself — to stay silent. The persistent message: It’s time for you to heal, and not hurt the university or the frats.

I ran across this story thanks to my friend and mentor Steve Weinberg. In his Facebook post, Weinberg wrote:

Lately, I’ve noticed a ho-hum attitude (I cannot prove this, it’s impressionistic) about campus rape. “Another campus rape story? Oh, no! I’m going to ignore it.” Well, I hope you don’t fall into that trap for the sake of daughters and sons and the entire enterprise of higher education.

Erdely’s story is much more than just another campus rape story. It makes us understand the problem, through the power of her reporting and narrative, in new, clearer ways. It’s one of the most powerful victim-centered stories I’ve seen in some time. Read it.

On the nightstand: Wednesday, 11/19/14

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:

  • Jordan Smith tells a story worthy of a Grisham plot. A man condemned to die for a rape and murder is innocent, his family and supporters say. They instead point the finger at the victim’s fiance, a disgraced cop whose alleged motive was an old, familiar one: jealously, tinged with racism. (The Intercept)
  • Brad Heath uses nationwide arrest data to show the extent of our Ferguson-like racial disparities. While blacks are far more likely in cities large and small to be arrested for the full range of crimes, untangling the many causes — including but not limited to outright racism — requires the kind of context that Heath thoughtfully  brings to the story. (USA Today)
  • Charles Bowden’s last story, with an assist from Molly Molloy, begins as a three-part series on the torture and murder of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico. As it lays the groundwork for what’s to come, the story hints of collusion with the murderers by the governments from both sides of the border. (Medium) In a sidebar, Molloy explains Bowden’s work on the story before his death in August.
  • Annie Kelly visits Ohio, where victims of sex trafficking tell what a difference it makes to remove or cover up tattoos that their former pimps and captors branded them with. (The Guardian)

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, 11/17/14

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:

  • Nadja Drost’s e-single “The Devil Underground” shows brave reporting in a violent place and compelling writing about underworld characters who fight over control of Colombia’s gold mining business. (The Atavist)
  • Ken Armstrong wrote the official launch story for The Marshall Project, a deep and disturbing look at how a one-year limit on federal habeas corpus petitions in death penalty cases has resulted in numerous injustices. Contrary to popular belief that criminals often get off on a technicality, this story shows how often they’re killed on a technicality. In part two, Armstrong reports on the failures of attorney disciplinary authorities to respond effectively to the mistakes that rob habeas petitioners of their rights.
  • Gary Craig tells a story that perfectly and tragically illustrates the maxim of crime victim advocates: “hurt people hurt people.” Demetrius Sampson’s life was on a good trajectory until he was shot in a robbery. Fearful, he armed himself and ended up killing a man in a street confrontation. Now he’s in Sing Sing serving a lengthy sentence. (Democrat & Chronicle)
  • Paul Grondahl uses his personal connection, and considerable writing talent, to get inside the hellish life of an Albany-area couple whose 24-year-old son lives on the streets, hopelessly addicted to heroin. The story succeeds at showing the human pain and futility of a criminal response in cases like this. It also makes the point that the youth comes from a good family, to which I would add: imagine the hopelessness and pain, then, when a bad family and lack of education compound the problems. (Times Union)

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.

My place in the crime-news curator world

Saturday night’s launch of The Marshall Project is good news for criminal-justice-news junkies, and not just because of the marquee feature stories we can expect from the impressive team that editor Bill Keller has hired. Another key attraction: “Opening Statement,” the daily newsletter compiled by the scarily well-read Andrew Cohen. If Twitter isn’t your thing — and Cohen’s and Marshall Project’s feeds do much of the same curating work, albeit in < 140 characters — then the newsletter is a must-read for people keen on following news of our criminal-justice system.

Curiously, the newsletter does not seem to be linkable on the web — just the signup page (UPDATE: now there’s a link to the newsletters, archived) — and my respect for our nation’s copyright laws precludes me from republishing the whole thing to show what it looks like. But here’s a summary of the first edition, which arrived in my inbox before 9 a.m. EST:

  • Pick of the News: longish blurbs on stories by both Marshall Project reporters and outside publications.
  • N/S/E/W: more news stories from a variety of sources, blurbed more succinctly.
  • Commentary from well-known pundits and editorialists.
  • Etc., featuring a profile, review, indictment, photo, and decision of the day.

Each category features five items. So, for the math-challenged, that means a curated list of 20 news and opinion pieces expertly picked and helpfully summarized. Free.

I expect these collections will overlap a lot with the always-excellent Crime and Justice News email from The Crime Report. Produced by Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, this five-days-a-week newsletter arrives reliably just before noon Eastern time with a similar mix of stories, heavy on reform-minded investigative stories. Much of The Crime Report is free, including a weekly newsletter. But the daily feed and full access to the site costs a reasonable $5 per month (or $50 a year).

Now that The Marshall Project has added to the glut of quality crime news (as distinct from mindless fear-mongering reporting like this, for example), where does that leave me?

For almost three years, I’ve used this blog to critique criminal-justice journalism, comment on criminal-justice policy, and provide updates on my work. Last April, I added a feature called Criminal-Justice Nightstand Reading, summarizing and linking to notable news in the criminal-justice world. It’s essentially a repeat of my social-media feeds, with longer summaries of the stories.

The volume and focus of this curated list has varied depending on my whims and other distractions. To be transparent about it, I started it to add value to the blog once Keller asked me to move my blog to The Marshall Project. When he later canceled that plan — mine was among a handful of independent blogs that they decided not to host after all — I decided to keep producing the blog and Nightstand Reading but focus them more tightly on deeply reported long-form narratives by journalists about crime, crime victims, and criminal-justice policy. It’s a niche I care about and that lacks others’ focus, as best I can tell.

As for other posts on the blog, I will still critique crime journalism now and then, when a story teaches a lesson about journalism or crime that I feel the need to comment on. But my focus will be on my own work: updates on projects in the works, added details about works just published, and thoughts on issues relevant to that work.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the relentless flow of this news. A reader could spend all day every day reading only what I link to from my blogroll (on the left rail) and from the glut of blogs and Twitter feeds on these topics (some of which I listed here). But that’s all the more reason to value the curators who selectively identify and summarize the good stuff. I hope my modest efforts in my chosen niche prove valuable to my readers.

On the nightstand: Friday, 11/14/14

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:

  • Paige Williams takes us inside a case that illustrates the raw judicial power of the “override,” which allows judges in three states to condemn defendants to death even when jurors vote for life. (The New Yorker)
  • Rachel Sturtz tells a devastating story of abuse and betrayal in this feature on young female swimmers preyed on by older male coaches and then roughed up by USA Swimming executives and their lawyers. (Outside)
  • Patsy Sims revisits the scene of the crime in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the murders of the civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney, and Schwermer, and recounts her earlier meeting with the man finally convicted of engineering the infamous crime. (Oxford American)
  • Laura Miller wrote what I’ve been thinking about Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast: that it’s not at all novel as a storytelling model. She cites a few quality true-crime stories in the same model. I could cite many more. That doesn’t take away from Serial’s appeal (which I totally get), or the particular device that Koenig has used effectively but which is getting a little tiresome (watching a reporter work). But Miller writes (and I agree) Serial’s popularity  speaks more to the appeal of podcasts than to Koenig’s reporting and writing. (Salon)

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.

Homelessness and crime victims

Among the ways in which we punish victims for their misfortune is to ignore the trauma they suffered that led to self-destructive behavior (untreated mental illness, homelessness, drugs) or to hurting others. Instead, we often denigrate them for perceived weaknesses and innate flaws (Why didn’t she leave him? They don’t have to live on the streets. She’s just making excuses instead of taking responsibility for her bad choices. He’s evil.).

This story in today’s New York Times by Mireya Navarro serves as a stark reminder of how today’s victim becomes tomorrow’s social problem or prisoner. In a story about domestic violence victims ending up homeless, a series of facts jump out:

Crime related to domestic violence is also high citywide, accounting for 40 percent of all felony assaults and 34 percent of rapes, city figures show. …

[C]ity officials said they found it particularly worrisome that three-quarters of the 37 victims killed in domestic violence last year had no contact with the police. …

[In homeless shelters,] about 5,000 families cited domestic abuse as the cause of their homelessness, city officials said.

The point of Navarro’s story is to look at New York City’s social-services response to homelessness. But it also should remind us how our responses to crime and social dysfunction must take into account how victims of crime — especially those living in poverty — suffer long-term when we fail to protect them in the first place, or when they see no way to report the crimes against them.

“Why nobody save us?”

The Soros Justice Fellowships, the program funding my work this year, support both journalists and advocates. We journalists might think we have the corner on storytelling. But an event at last July’s annual conference of fellows past and present demonstrated that the advocacy folks can tell a hell of a story — especially when it’s about their remarkable lives.

The conference was packed with panel discussions and presentations. But one evening we kicked back for entertainment that had been kept a secret. All we knew was that some of our fellow fellows had volunteered to go on stage and tell a story about the law. The result was a breathtaking series of stories about the speakers’ lives and work.

The Life of the Law podcast videotaped all of the speakers and will feature them in a series in the coming weeks. The first, with Nashville advocate Clemmie Greenlee, was to my mind the most remarkable of the evening. Alternately funny and horrifying, pointed and poignant, Greenlee’s story traced her growth from abused child to sex-trafficking victim, drug addict, street person, bereaved mother of a murdered son, and oft-jailed advocate for the people she didn’t forget once she was saved by a woman who, Greenlee says, “gave me a hug before she gave me a bath.”

At one point, Greenlee asks her fellow sex slaves, “Why nobody save us?” She couldn’t believe that no one cared what happened to them. Now she devotes her life to caring.

To say that crime often stems from abuse and victimization is an abstraction. Clemmie Greenlee makes it real and riveting. Watch:

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business