On the nightstand: Friday, 12/19/14

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:

  • John Gibler’s reporting from the scene of a suspected massacre of Mexican college students yields a detailed account of what happened the night of their disappearance in Iguana. The answers, implicating Mexican officials in mass murder, add to the sense of desperation that violence has imposed south of the U.S. border. (California Sunday Magazine)
  • Holbrook Mohr and Garance Burke canvassed the nation’s justice systems to show that over a six-year span at least 786 children died of abuse or neglect while their families were being investigated by child protection authorities. The reporters’ investigation showed appalling gaps in a system’s ability to protect, or even to know the extent of the problem. (Associated Press)
  • Brad Heath continues his excellent coverage of felony fugitives with an update on his long-running series. The latest story shows how 79,000 more fugitives were added in the past 18 months to the list of people whom authorities no longer will pursue over state lines. Victims complain that no one bothered to tell them, much less ask their wishes. (USA Today)
  • In the second of three-parts of the series Collateral Damage, on the ripple effects of traumatic violence, Andrea McDaniels shows us what life is like caring for survivors of violence — sometimes for decades. (Baltimore Sun)
  • On the blog, I said farewell to the Serial podcast with a post asking its fans to spend their newfound free hour per week sampling from equally or surpassingly good nonfiction crime narrative. I tweeted a few noteworthy Serial recaps, including Josh Levin’s contemplation on how Serial showed the real work of investigative reporting, seams and all, and Sarah Larson’s explanation of Serial’s revelations about reasonable doubt and, ultimately, flaws in our justice system.

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.

What Serial hath wrought

serial-social-logoAs a committed contrarian, I convinced myself weeks ago that I  had ample reason to hate Serial, Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular podcast about a high school student’s murder and her ex-boyfriend’s questionable conviction. Let me cite a few of the big ones:

  • The over-the-top fawning over this story, as if it were the Most Amazing Story Ever, ignored the existence of great true-crime storytelling in books, magazines, and online — the kinds of stories I regularly feature on this blog, archived here and here. In the ecstatic reaction to this supposedly revolutionary form, it seemed no one realized that the process Koenig showed is pretty much what all reporters do for a living on any story told at length. And the conflicting, inconclusive proof that called into question a conviction and life sentence? Well, that’s pretty common, too, as anyone who follows the literature of wrongful conviction can attest.
  • Significant holes in the reporting, despite Koenig’s embarrassment of reporting riches in the form of a team of producers from Serial’s parent, This American Life, along with a paid private detective consultant and a team of innocence-project researchers. The victim’s family? The chief prosecution witness? All ducked the show’s requests to talk. Moreover, Koenig’s hook — that we were following along as she tried to puzzle out the case and her feelings about it — betrayed an approach that most journalists would consider naive and baffling. How do you start telling a story without knowing where it’s going? The all-important ending should be a mystery to the reader and listener, but most definitely not to the storyteller.
  • Koenig’s meandering, angsty tone — the sighs, the groans, the fretting — took transparency to neurotic new highs. It’s one thing as a storyteller to show modesty in not pretending to know with certainty everything about a case. It’s another to make that the whole point of the story with frequent dramatic flourishes. Call me old-fashioned, but I loathe the me-me-me narcissism that is so faddish in storytelling today, where journalists put themselves at the center of the narrative out of literary laziness rather than necessity.

And yet, now that the last episode has gone up, I admit I was hooked along with all the other fans. It was, flat out, a good story with more than enough questions to pull us through to the end. The ending, in particular, had a clarity and punch that I did not expect. Regardless of how I reacted to it, what’s important about the story is that millions of new fans of nonfiction crime narrative now, I hope, will seek out the work of David Grann, Robert Kolker, Pamela Colloff, Patrick Radden Keefe, Paige Williams, Emily Bazelon, and so many more veterans of the craft of deeply reported, finely told crime stories. For God’s sake, just subscribe to The New Yorker and you’re halfway to true-crime heaven.

Will podcast fans make the leap to the written word? I hope that people who found the time to listen to an hourlong story every week could carve out at least that much time for quality reading. Some of us read much more than that every day. Maybe I’m showing my age as well as my preferences as a visual, not auditory, learner. But the excuse for not reading — lack of time — falls flat when the same people can watch TV entertainment fluff for hours every day. If you liked Serial that much, you owe it to yourself to dip into the deep pool of quality crime narrative out there.

On the nightstand: Wednesday, 12/17/14

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:

  • Andrea K. McDaniels’ series on victims of violence focuses this installment on school children, those whose bad behavior often stems from exposure to chronic trauma. Future installments this Thursday and Sunday promise other angles on the people who suffer in multiple ways from violence. (Baltimore Sun)
  • Jackie Judd reports from Oakland on that police department’s attempts to confront racial bias in its work in order to improve both public safety and the community’s trust. (PBS NewsHour)
  • Caitlin McNally’s story about Alonza Thomas illustrates the debate over lengthy, adult-prison sentences for teenagers. In interviews with Thomas, his mother and defense lawyer, and his prosecutor and victim in an armed robbery, the first half of McNally’s half-hour online documentary looks at Thomas’ 13 years in prison for a crime committed when he was 15. Then she looks at Thomas’ difficult adjustment to freedom. (Frontline/UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program)
  • Longreads asked a handful of writers for their favorite crime stories of 2014. The result is a list of great stories with insightful critiques. (Longreads)
  • And a similar list from Longform.org: the five top crime stories. Also check out Longform’s top 10 of all genres, which includes three other great crime stories.

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.

New push to serve crime’s most vulnerable victims

Why is there nothing like MADD — a special-interest advocacy group for a single type of crime victim — targeting our most-victimized group of all: young black men?  That’s the question posed in a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice’s affiliate Common Justice, an experiment in violence intervention and victim services.

The report by Common Justice director Danielle Sered notes:

For more than 30 years, the victim services field has worked to develop a system of support for victims of crime, including financial assistance, legal services, advocacy for victims’ rights, and more. Alongside those broader efforts, specialized services have been developed for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault—ranging from shelters to therapeutic interventions to targeted, culturally responsive programs— that take into account the particular needs and experiences of these victims. However, there has not been a parallel effort to meet the needs of young men of color when they are victims of crime and violence. This includes few services for victims of the crimes young men of color are most likely to experience (i.e. robbery and stranger assault), as well as few services that account for the specific culture, experiences, and needs of this group.

Despite the significant potential health, social, and public-safety benefits of treating this endemic trauma, the report calls out service providers for not targeting a population that can be its own worst enemy, given cultural barriers to identifying as a victim. (One of the more telling anecdotes: When asked in a 2008 study of recently released Rikers Island inmates if they had been crime victims, all of the teenagers said no. But, when asked if they’d been assaulted or robbed, nearly all said they had been.)

In order to give young black male crime victims the help they need and might take, Common Justice will serve as a “learning collaborative” — a hub of activity to urge more informed, targeted services — for the agencies and organizations that can help. It doesn’t quite have the marketing zing of MADD or “take back the night” campaigns, but it addresses a yawning gap in victim services.

A most common anomaly

In his Sunday column in tomorrow’s New York Times, Nick Kristof tells the story of Ian Manuel and Debbie Baigrie. At age 13, Manuel shot Baigrie in the face in a botched robbery. Now 37, he has been in prison 24 years and has another 13 to go — which marks a reduction from his original sentence of life without parole. Baigrie went to bat for Manuel, unsuccessfully pleading for mercy at his resentencing. The two maintain what Kristof calls a “most unusual” and “incredible” relationship.

It is, indeed, a powerful story, especially with Kristof’s effort to show how Manuel’s upbringing put him on a path to commit such a horrible, impulsively cruel crime, and how his race doomed him to Florida’s ultra-harsh sentencing.

But this is hardly the anomaly that Kristof makes it out to be. Since 2008, when I started reporting on a case that I ultimately turned into the Kindle Single God’s Nobodies, I have collected stories like this, in which a victim — initially angry and vengeful — ultimately turns to forgiveness, or at least empathy. I’ve lost count of such stories, which often feature similarly context-free claims of novelty when a victim and her assailant reconcile.

This isn’t just because we have short attention spans. It’s also because we impose our own assumptions on how victims should act, rather than listen to them. And because we’re ordinarily bombarded with stories of victims seeking the ultimate punishment, complaining when courts disappoint them, calling for new laws and tougher penalties, all in hopes of punishing our way out of the hurt. There’s no denying these victims exist. But the other types get far less attention.

So it’s a good thing for Kristof, with his visibility, to describe Baigrie’s journey and her reasons for reconciling with Manuel. In my upcoming series on crime victims, I intend to start with an even more “incredible” and “unusual” tale, of a young man who committed a far worse crime at age 15, served nearly 24 years in prison (coincidentally, what Manuel has served so far), and who has been out of prison for more than four years living a productive life — with a “most unusual” advocate by his side, one who seeks to hold her daughter’s murderer accountable in ways that more years in prison would have failed to accomplish.

On the nightstand: Saturday, 12/13/14

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:

  • Elon Green’s “The Untold Story of the Doodler Murders” documents an unsolved serial killing spree that never got much attention, perhaps because the victims were gay men in the mid-1970s. While San Francisco, where the murders took place, had become a gay mecca, the police force was anything but empathetic with victims who left bars for hookups that turned deadly. And many gay men remained closeted, unwilling to cooperate with police. (The Awl)
  • Ben Popper tells the story of two brothers caught up in, or on the fringes of, gangbanging in NYC. One is serving a long prison stint. The other spent 19 months awaiting trial, and faced 20 years or more, for little more than “liking” a Facebook post. Popper explores how police use the gang intelligence they gather in social media. (The Verge)
  • Ashley Powers goes to the Utah-Arizona border to witness what life is like for families caught in a war for control involving the imprisoned Warren Jeffs, leader of a cult-like Mormon splinter group. Where police enforce the group’s arcane rules and courts struggle to sort out disputes borne of animosity between Jeffs followers and “apostates,” one struggling family tells of its hardships in the war zone. (California Sunday Magazine)
  • Christie Thompson reports on a political habit that never seems to go out of fashion, even when conservative-backed reform is in the air. Soft-on-crime attack ads remain a staple of well-funded, partisan judicial elections, she reports with numerous examples and videos. (The Marshall Project)

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, 12/10/14

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:

  • Emily Yoffe, in a long narrative based on court records and interviews, documents a case of a university’s unfair treatment of a male student accused of sexual assault — part of a pattern, Yoffe writes, of overreactions to inflated claims of a campus rape epidemic. It’s possible, she writes, both to support rape victims and remain skeptical of “bad policy … being made on the back of problematic research.” (Slate)
  • Buzzfeed, capitalizing on the Serial craze, compiled this list of 29 true-crime books and e-singles to read. Despite its odd number, it’s a fairly conventional and useful list, skewing to more recent books. I could name a bunch more that should be on a best-of list, but I’ll give Buzzfeed’s Daniel Dalton this at least: his list focuses on quality, rather than the sleazier forms of the genre.
  • Michael Zuckerman describes the approach of community courts, using one in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood as his focus. The treatment-centered and respectful approach to solving defendants’ problems doesn’t just sound nice, he writes. It works and is slowly spreading across the country. (Pacific Standard)
  • On the blog, I quoted from Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy to show how the civil rights advocate’s work extends beyond prisoners and defendants to victims’ interests.

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 courthouse encounter

just-mercyNear the end of his remarkable and readable memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the criminal-justice advocate Bryan Stevenson tells a story that illustrates why he considers caring for prisoners and the condemned as compatible with caring for their victims. In one of many anecdotes about his legal advocacy, much of which concerns working against excessive sentences for youthful offenders, Stevenson spots an elderly woman in a New Orleans courthouse hallway and engages her in a conversation. He writes:

“Sit, sit. I want to talk to you,” she said.

I sat down beside her on the steps. “I’ve seen you here several times, are you related to [his prisoner-clients] Mr. Caston or Mr. Carter?” I asked.

“No, no, no, I’m not related to nobody here. Not that I know of, anyway.” She had a kind smile, and she looked at me intensely. “I just come here to help people. This is a place full of pain, so people need plenty of of help around here.”

“Well, that’s really kind of you.”

“No, it’s what I’m supposed to do, so I do it.” She looked away before locking eyes with me again. “My sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered fifteen years ago,” she said, “and I loved that boy more than life itself.”

I wasn’t expecting that response and was instantly sobered. The woman grabbed my hand.

“I grieved and grieved and grieved. I asked the Lord why he let someone take my child like that. He was killed by some other boys. I came to this courtroom for the first time for their trials and sat in there and cried every day for nearly two weeks. None of it made any sense. Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.”

She goes on to tell Stevenson how, after a stranger comforted her, she paid that forward by continuing to trek to the courthouse, comforting the families of victims and defendants alike. The pain imposed by extreme punishment only dug the hole deeper that had been left by street violence, so she did her part to pull people out of the hole.

Stevenson, earlier in the book, writes:

“I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible.

But simply punishing the broken — walking away from them or hiding them from sight — only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too.

It’s natural to feel anger and to seek revenge, even when the victims are strangers to us, but especially when they are our loved ones. And so it’s easy to dismiss the sentiments quoted here, especially if short excerpts are the only basis for judgment. Stevenson’s full story — which is about something more complex and profound than “just” mercy — might change minds about what constitutes justice, just as I hope my much more modest work in telling victims’ stories will. Whether or not minds change, it’s impossible to deny the truth that not all victims find comfort in levying the harshest possible punishment on those who hurt us.

On the nightstand: Sunday, 12/7/14

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:

  • Kyle Swenson revisits a wrongful-conviction story he told in 2011. Though that story seemed to make no difference at first, three years later it contributed greatly to the unraveling of a trio of murder convictions. He tells how a witness ended up recanting, 39 years after the fact. (Cleveland Scene)
  • Marie Eisenstadt digs behind the controversy over a jail’s financial settlement with an inmate who suffered brain damage in a suicide attempt. She finds a tragic story of a mother’s pain over a young man’s mental illness that found little cure in jails and prisons. (Syracuse Post-Standard)
  • Chip Brown profiles Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., who comes off as a bit of cipher who’s blessed with an historically low crime rate and a boring job, relative to his predecessors’. But there’s a real insight in the story into crime prevention tactics, in the DA’s aggressive use of data to target the small number of people responsible for a big share of crime — an approach preferable to indiscriminately harsh treatment of anyone charged with a crime. (The New York Times Magazine)
  • On the blog, I culled from The New York Times‘ best-of-2014 list of books the quality nonfiction crime and criminal-justice narratives; pondered the lessons about telling crime victims’ stories that the Rolling Stone UVA-rape scandal has taught us; and provided outtakes from a story I wrote for Open Society Foundations on how the recent police-shooting grand-jury controversies shed light on our treatment of crime victims.

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 and justice in the NYT top 100 books

Tis the season to make lists, and lists of lists. I like to scan “best” reading lists for books and articles I may have overlooked during the year. In that spirit, I’ll cull from various lists the quality nonfiction crime and criminal-justice narratives that appear.

Today’s list: The New York Times“100 Notable Books of 2014.” Here’s what the Times‘ reviewers said:

JUST MERCY: A Story of Justice and RedemptionBy Bryan Stevenson. (Spiegel & Grau, $28.) An activist lawyer’s account of a man wrongfully convicted of murder reads like a call to action.

ON THE RUN: Fugitive Life in an American CityBy Alice Goffman. (University of Chicago, $25.) A young sociologist’s remarkably reported ethnography of a poor black Philadelphia ­neighborhood.

THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy LeagueBy Jeff Hobbs. (Scribner, $27.) A heartbreaking journey from a New Jersey ghetto to Yale to a drug-­related murder.

THE TRUE AMERICAN: Murder and Mercy in TexasBy Anand Giridharadas. (Norton, $27.95.) Competing visions of the American dream collide in this account of a post-9/11 hate crime and its unlikely ­reverberations.

Of these, I’ve read only the first, Stevenson’s powerful and well-told memoir (tomorrow I’ll blog about a particular passage from it that I found particularly evocative). On my blog, I linked to critical reviews of Goffman’s book here and here, and to mixed reviews of Giridharadas’ book here and here.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business