On the nightstand: Tuesday, 9/23/14

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

  • Robert Mentzer took a chance event — a recent parolee walks into the newsroom and wants to talk to a reporter — and turned it into a compelling narrative about a notorious fugitive and one of his victims, a police officer traumatized by a long-ago shootout. (Wausau Daily Herald)
  • Adam Geller goes beyond the recent debate over confining mentally ill prison inmates in solitary confinement to examine what local jails do. The answer: same problem, except harder to get a handle on it. (Associated Press)
  • Alex Isenstadt uses his reporting to question whether Gabby Giffords exploits her victim status to land low blows in gun-control politics.  (Politico)
  • Emily Bazelon brings her brand of quick-draw, original-reporting storytelling to her new job, having just moved to the Times Magazine from Slate, with a report on a mom jailed for helping her teen daughter use legal drugs to induce an abortion. (New York Times Magazine)
  • The latest report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics quantifies how, and  how many, victims suffer long-term effects after they are targeted in a violent crime. While two-thirds of violent-crime victims reported such problems as high levels of emotional distress or disruptions at school or work, nearly 90 percent of them received no crime-victim services, in many cases because they never reported their crimes in the first place (but in half the cases even though they did go to the police). (The Crime Report briefly summarizes and links to the report)

This almost-daily 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: Friday, 9/19/14

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

  • Tom Junod brings his original writing style — and a vast amount of original reporting — to a question we always ask after a mass shooting: How could it have been stopped? He explains why it’s not as hopeless as we often think in the immediate aftermath. (Esquire)
  • Josh Voorhees looks at a two-year experiment in Iowa to reduce recidivism. Fewer mentally ill ex-cons return to prison, he finds, if the state gives them an ample supply of medications as they leave. The cost of the meds pales next to the cost of prison. (Slate)
  • Joe Sexton reports on the latest in the Etan Patz murder investigation. When suspect Pedro Hernandez was first seen publicly in a taped confession, he appeared calm and rational. Sexton shows what led up to that with a vivid description of the long interrogation that preceded it. This doesn’t mean his confession is false, but the two tapes side by side do illustrate how seeing only the final stages of an interrogation can skew impressions of what happened. (ProPublica)
  • Garrett Graff’s in-depth profile of FBI Director James Comey examines how he runs the huge agency and what he’s been doing while keeping a low public profile. One tidbit: Despite his background working on gun-and-gang violence, Comey has made no special moves in those areas. (Politico)

This almost-daily 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, 9/17/14

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

  • Nathaniel Penn gives voice to 23 men who tell of being raped while they served in the military, and how the military failed them. Interspersed among the quotes are facts that most readers will find surprising: about how common male rape is in the military, and how the vast majority of victims are too full of shame or fear to report the crimes in the first place. (GQ)
  • Richard Pérez-Peña and Walt Bogdanich used interviews and open-records laws to discover a pattern in Florida rape investigations: If a victim doesn’t answer the right way when asked if she wants the investigation to proceed, she is deemed uncooperative and the case is closed. (The New York Times)
  • Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman investigate the shabby conditions at some of Philadelphia’s unlicensed, for-profit recovery homes for drug addicts. (Philadelphia Daily News)
  • Poppy Harlow and Amanda Hobor tell the story of Candice Anderson, convicted of a felony in the death of her boyfriend but now making a bid for a pardon after GM admitted her crash was one of many caused by a faulty car ignition. (CNNMoney)
  • Graeme Wood describes California prison-gang culture in almost anthropological detail, telling the story of how they interact with rivals, establish internal rules of behavior inside, and interact with street gangs outside. (The Atlantic) Andrew Cohen, meanwhile, tweeted his critique: “not a single word about lawsuits, abuse, neglect or overcrowding.” It is unfortunate, indeed, that Wood writes about solitary confinement without noting the controversy over its use and abuse. But it doesn’t greatly trouble me that he chose to focus on one topic concerning prisons without including all relevant topics. What I found missing, though, were perspectives other than just those of prison officials. After the inmates refused to talk to him (that’s how he ends the story), he should have shown that he sought to check and verify the prison point of view with groups that monitor and critique prison administration.
  • On the blog, I called out a talk-radio host for his incendiary handling of a police officer’s murder; gave a report from inside the grand jury room on the DA handling the Tony Stewart case; and criticized a Stateline report about judicial independence that committed a basic legal-reporting sin.

This almost-daily 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.

“Technicality” rides again

I’ve ranted before about the lame journalistic shorthand that blows off explaining the law with the phrase “on a technicality.” It is, by my way of thinking, one of the worst sins of legal reporting because it looks only at the practical result of what a court did. If we didn’t know better, we’d have to think that judges vote up or down on controversial cases simply because they like one result more than the other. That is often how the general public views court decisions, but it’s not exactly how things should work in a nation founded on the rule of law. Regardless of who’s right on the legal merits, the legal reporter’s job is to report on what just happened — and why.

Now I’ve found an even more egregious use of the term. In a story about the perils of political retaliation against judges for their rulings, the journalist focuses on one case in particular. But he can’t be bothered to explain how it was decided beyond the opaque term “technicalities.” In other words, it’s a story that convenes a policy debate and then tells one side to sit down and shut up.

Here’s the scenario: In July, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld most of the convictions of two brothers who had been found guilty and sentenced to death for a crime spree that included five execution-style murders. But the court overturned the men’s death sentences, ruling that the trial judge — in a trial replete with errors — unfairly conducted the sentencing phase of the trial in tandem. The result was that jurors who might have shown more mercy toward one defendant over another were, the court found, less able to differentiate the cases once they were mashed together. That’s kind of a key constitutional question — the fundamental fairness and integrity of the trial, verdict, and sentence — even though it’s bound to be unpopular, given the brutality of the crimes.

Unpopular it was indeed. As Stateline’s Jeffrey Stinson explains in this story, it has led to political backlash against the Kansas high court. Stinson does a decent job at explaining the political and judicial-independence angles from the ensuing controversy. But here’s how he explains the ruling that started it all:

[I]n July, the Kansas Supreme Court set aside the death sentences for the notorious killers, shocking many Kansans and adding fuel to a debate over how justices on the state’s highest court should be chosen.

To state Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Republican,  the court’s decision to overturn the brothers’ capital murder convictions on technicalities is only the latest example of the court defying public sentiment—and a compelling argument for why Kansas residents should have a more powerful voice in choosing their top judges.

That’s it. No other detail about why the court did what it did. If I may summarize, then, the story’s central point: Politicians got all worked up over a ruling they disagreed with. The ruling let two awful murderers off the hook because the judges got all nitpicky. Now it’s your turn to decide if you feel sorry for the criminal-loving, hyper-technical judges. Go!

Considering that Stateline is published by the high-minded Pew Charitable Trusts — and that a story on judicial independence commits the very sin it’s meant to call out — makes a bad situation even worse.

Closeup of Stewart case DA

I don’t pretend to have inside dope on the Tony Stewart case as it heads to a county grand jury. I’ve done no reporting of my own on it, and know nothing about the sport other than what I read in this excellent day-after racing-savvy analysis of the law as it might apply in this case (which I blogged about here). But I have one insight to share as the public debate resumes over whether the NASCAR star committed a crime when his sprint car struck and killed a local racer, Kevin Ward Jr.

I live near Canandaigua, the site of the fatal accident. And four years ago I served on the county grand jury. For three months, I spent one or two mornings a week in a room with 22 of my fellow citizens to hear a mind-numbing string of cases. There, I had a front-row seat to observe the same DA who will present Stewart’s case to a grand jury.

It’s safe to say that Ontario County District Attorney Mike Tantillo and I are nearly political opposites. Partisanship aside, I give him credit for a remarkably uncompromising approach to DWI but I doubt we share much common ground regarding long prison sentences and harsh retribution.

But I know this: Mike Tantillo is as straight a straight-shooter as I’ve ever seen in a criminal lawyer, prosecution or defense. He is neither a publicity seeker nor a coward. He will push for an indictment if it’s rightous, and not if it’s not. In the nearly 70 cases my grand jury heard in July-September 2010, Tantillo never, ever put pressure on us to vote up or down. Of course, in the one-sided presentation that is a typical grand jury evidentiary hearing, the prosecutor bakes his recommendation into the facts he presents and the potential charges he lays out. But, in the curious role I played on the grand jury — as assistant foreman, and as a legal journalist practiced at translating legalese — I paid especially close attention to Tantillo’s factual and legal presentations. And not once did I catch even a whiff of a stacked deck. He made my job as translator easy. Once he left us to deliberate and vote, I could take what he said and confidently lay out the options to the jury: If you believe this, then vote for an indictment on this charge; if you believe that, vote for another charge — or for a no-bill.

Best of all: Tantillo not only didn’t argue with us if we voted a no-bill; he went out of his way to reassure us that we had done our jobs, even though I suspect he was disappointed. Example: We heard a case of a man riding passenger in a car that police stopped and searched. The car was a rolling drugstore: weed, coke, heroin. He claimed he was simply trying to get help in picking up his girlfriend from her waitressing job. Besides getting a ride from the local drug lord, he made a second bad mistake by pocketing $1,500 in cash when the police tossed the car. Tantillo laid out six possible charges for us, and left us to it.

Ordinarily we voted to indict nearly every case before us, because they were that clear, at least based on what we had to go on. This one, I felt, left us room for discretion. The guy was probably guilty under the law, but were we really going to wreck his life for making a couple of really dumb mistakes? I convinced enough to go along with me and we no-billed him. Tantillo barely blinked when I told him the vote. Then I asked if we’d made a mistake. No, he replied. The driver was clearly the main guy; the evidence against the passenger was thin, he said. Then he added — even though he didn’t have to, and much to my relief — that we shouldn’t second-guess ourselves. We’d made an honest judgment call that he respected.

I won’t lay odds on what will or should happen in the Stewart case. But, if I were either Stewart or the Ward family, I would like to know that the DA has the integrity, brains, and guts to do the right thing, whatever that is. From what I’ve seen, they can bank on that.

Two ways to react to a terrible crime

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work of leading criminologist David Kennedy, of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and its National Network for Safe Communities. Kennedy devised a method of intervening in gang violence and drug markets that has proven dramatically effective in several crime-ridden cities. Last week I visited the Los Angeles Police Department’s experiment with Kennedy’s method, where, as in most cities that have effectively used it, the approach has cut homicides by a large share.

The key there, as everywhere, is a partnership between police and social-service providers that recognizes the reality of urban violence: a small number of violent offenders drive the numbers, victimizing the majority of people living in those neighborhoods. Bring about a ceasefire among that small, violent cohort, Kennedy teaches, and you bring relative peace to a city — not least to the people most vulnerable to the violence because they live in it. Indiscriminate brute force, he and others have taught anyone who bothers to listen, only boomerangs by destabilizing the community further and turning the good people in a bad neighborhood against the police. Plus, it’s simply unjust to blame the many for the actions of the few.

In his book Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, Kennedy  calls Rochester’s violence a decade ago “pretty much the worst I’ve ever seen outside a big city.” He and Rochester police used his “ceasefire” tactics to good effect then, and the program remains in use today. Certain blighted neighborhoods in Rochester remain, alas, pockets of despair and violence. And that was never clearer than on September 3, when for the first time in 55 years a Rochester police officer was killed in the line of duty. Police have charged a parolee with gunning down Daryl Pierson, by all accounts a model citizen and peace officer; war veteran, devoted father and husband.

Reporter-columnist David Andreatta
Reporter-columnist David Andreatta

Anyone who hears the details of this man’s life and death must be outraged. But then the adults among us seek constructive outlets for our emotions. If we work in the media, that means we behave like Democrat & Chronicle reporter-columnist David Andreatta. His column published in print today movingly tells of the poise and dignity of Pierson’s widow, Amy. Not only that, he visits the only known family member of the accused shooter, who praises Amy Pierson and tells Andreatta, “She probably don’t care what we think, but we’re hurting for her and her family and we are so, so sorry for what happened.”

Bob Lonsberry's Facebook profile pic
Bob Lonsberry’s Facebook profile pic

Then there’s the opposite from journalist-turned-talk-radio-host Bob Lonsberry. On the air, and in this blog post, Lonsberry has done his best to stoke public rage. Consider these words published after Pierson’s funeral last Thursday:

It’s time to be pissed.

Because the bad guys control the street where Officer Daryl Pierson fell. It is the ethic of the American fighting man that if we water the soil with our blood, we own that soil, we do not surrender it. We have purchased it at a price, a high price, and we do not waste or squander the sacrifice we have made.

As things stand now, Hudson Avenue has taken one of ours. A criminal culture that reeks like sewage across the city is riding rampant through our streets.

Lonsberry then cautions that “not all” are to blame. “But,” he continues, “enough streets and enough people to make life uncertain and dangerous for all residents, and for all police.”

The enemy? Anti-police activists, in his words, who have “blood on their hands” for daring to criticize the police. So, by Lonsberry’s logic, as it were:

The police department has to do something about that. The police department has to protect itself and its community.

Because if you get hit, and you don’t hit back, you are asking to get hit again. And if all the promises of “Never again” are to mean anything, the smartest thing to do with all those police officers in town yesterday would have been to turn them loose to clean the streets.

So there’s the expert analysis, folks. Lay waste to an entire community because, well, they have it coming. True courage, on the other hand, requires that we do the hard work required to prevent this kind of violence — the kind of work Kennedy and his police allies know will work — while caring for the victims, Pierson’s family and colleagues.

Pandering to blind rage isn’t manly, it isn’t rational, and most importantly it isn’t effective. But I suppose it is good for ratings.

On the nightstand: Sunday, 9/14/14

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

  • Sara Bernard wrote the Alaska story everyone should be talking about. Not the one about the Palins. This is about rape culture in remote northern Alaska, where victims of sex crimes can do little or nothing to protect themselves and hold offenders accountable. It’s a powerfully told story that should provoke outrage over something truly important (unlike the attention paid to the Wasilla Hillbillies). (The Atlantic)
  • Sean Flynn does two impressive things in his story about “Brooklyn’s Baddest” cop, Louis Scarcella: he gives credit to The New York Times for its relentless, original reporting on this case of overzealous detective work that ended up railroading innocent suspects; and then he refused to get played by the charming Scarcella and his less-than-charming lawyer. The ending especially packs a punch. (GQ)
  • Joe Sexton’s curtain-raiser for Monday’s hearing in the Etan Patz murder case puts what’s happening in clear, informed context. Pedro Hernandez has been jailed 844 days without resolution of his charges in the 1979 disappearance of the 6-year-old Patz. Sexton explains why. (ProPublica)
  • Ken Sturtz and Jeff Stein wrap up a weeklong series with the survivors’ side of a story about bungled police work that left the death of a child unsolved for 44 years. “Imperfect Justice” tells the story of Carolee Ashby, killed on Halloween by a hit-and-run driver who confessed long after the statute of limitations tolled. (Syracuse Post-Standard)

This almost-daily 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: Saturday, 9/13/14

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

  • Ian Shapira overcomes his subjects’ reticence to go public to show the grief and remorse of parents of mass shooters. They speak to the victims through this finely crafted and sensitively told story. (Washington Post)
  • Lisa Belkin digs deeply in her reporting and crafts a well-told narrative about the aftermath of a small-town New Jersey murder. The issue: the parents of the teen victim have sued the parents of the teen killer, to try to hold them responsible. Belkin asks all the relevant questions surrounding this difficult topic. (Yahoo News)
  • Carrie Johnson marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Violent Crime Control Act by quoting then-supporters on their regrets for a federal law that critics now see as a vast and counterproductive overreaction to crime. (NPR)
  • Marisa Taylor and Michael Doyle, using the Freedom of Information Act and records compiled by Syracuse University’s TRAC, document the many ways in which Department of Justice prosecutors decided to cut a break and not file charges against people who arguable or clearly committed federal crimes. Those lucky people, though, happened to be other DOJ employees, from FBI agents to federal marshals and others. (McClatchy)
  • Emily Bazelon meticulously explains — with reported facts from authoritative sources; the opposite of uninformed blather — why the criminal prosecution of Ray Rice for assaulting his then-fiance ended without significant punishment. (Slate)
  • A great example of ambitious, student-produced journalism: News21’s “Gun Wars” looks at many angles of guns in America. The most victim-centric piece, produced by Erin Patrick O’Connor, tells the story of Camden, New Jersey, residents living in a violent city.
  • To mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11, many (including me) tweeted one of the most remarkable journalistic tributes to the victims: The New York Times‘ Portraits of Grief, more than 2,500 brief portraits of the lives that were lived before they were lost that day. All these years later, these still hold their power and poignancy.

This almost-daily 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 night in the park

I spent my last afternoon and evening in South Los Angeles with Adela Barajas, an advocate for crime victims and crime prevention. She took up this cause when her sister-in-law was murdered in the cross-fire of gang warfare. For the past seven years, she has worked toward peace on LA’s violence-torn south side.

Tonight, Barajas’ youth group held its weekly meeting at the sparkling, new recreation center the city built in a park that once was no place for children and families but now is a hub of healthy activity for kids of all ages. Barajas brought in two eager college students who teach healthy eating habits. They taught their lesson in a fun, interactive way — with a cooking class, blanching broccoli, slicing oranges, and chopping vegetables for pico de gallo. One teen looked familiar. I had seen her my first night in town a week ago, so broken she couldn’t even choke out her name through her tears as her mother poured out her pain to a group of other mothers, similarly wounded survivors. Tonight, she laughed and teased and enjoyed some moments of peace with her peers.

I walked into the twilight with Barajas while boys shot hoops and families wandered the clean, well-kept park. As we lingered by our cars, an LAPD patrol car rolled by, then did a sharp U-turn. One officer shined a light on a young man turning slow circles on the sidewalk on his bike. The officers popped out of the cruiser and within seconds, the bicyclist was in cuffs, his pockets turned out. The officers pulled up his shirt to examine his tattoos. There he stood for 10 minutes as they ran his name and questioned him. Then they uncuffed him and drove off. He told us he’s on probation and shrugged off the stop-and-frisk: “This is my condition.”

When I tell the full story of the work Barajas and others do on LA’s streets to steer kids toward education, healthy lifestyles, and hope, I’ll explain more about that incident — and about the balancing act that activists perform in trying to heal a community from the dual threats of violence and a policing strategy that locks up great numbers of their young men. For now, as I got in my car and headed out of the neighborhood, I could only wonder how many of those happy children I saw in cooking class will be able to avoid the gangs, the violence, and arrest as they simply try to live.

On the nightstand: Tuesday, 9/9/14

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

  • Robert Kolker explores the case of Michael Egan, who claims powerful Hollywood executives exploited him sexually when he was a minor. Because of Egan’s involvement in a group of sexual abuse survivors, he decided to go public with his accusations, using the services of Florida lawyer Jeffrey Herman. Kolker’s access to Egan allows him to follow Egan’s fallout with Herman and leaves the reader unsure of what or whom to believe. (New York)
  • James Renner floats theories of why the Plain Dealer replaced three experienced courthouse reporters who produced an impressive list of major stories. Besides the obvious (to save money with cheaper, younger talent), Renner suggests the ownership structure in Cleveland rewarded online traffic more if the three experienced pros report to a different part of the operation. (Cleveland Scene)
  • Dave Zirin argues that Janay Rice should have had veto power over the showing of her elevator beating. Showing it without her consent, he writes, revictimizes her. But he acknowledges the counterargument: that the shock of it wakes people up to the reality of what we’re talking about. (The Nation)
  • Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine shows examples of people with drug convictions serving life sentences and asks why this is allowed to stand at a time when casual use of marijuana is tolerated more than ever, and yet the people who supply the weed get punished overly harshly. (Forbes)
  • Elahe Izadi reports on shocking numbers of women who have been beaten by their partners or raped, as revealed in a report issued last week. This week, with the Ray Rice case back in the spotlight, maybe we’ll pay more attention. (Washington Post)
  • David J. Krajicek offers anecdotes and impressions of news coverage of Ferguson, Missouri. Best part of it: he names names of those who did their jobs with distinction. (The Crime Report)

This almost-daily 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