A victim’s heartfelt words

One of the hardest things any of us must do is to listen to a point of view we disagree with — really listen to, and hear, the person who serves as an example of an idea that we oppose. It’s called having an open mind, and most of us aren’t very good at it.

I will try to do it in this blog post, by describing a remarkable story that contradicts a new project I’ll be announcing in more detail soon. I am working to tell stories about crime victims whose voices are not heard and interests are not served by a justice system geared to harsh punishment. I intend to examine the stories and research that show how our anger toward violent crime gets funneled through victims and survivors toward the perpetrators, creating excessive prison terms and use of the death penalty — and how that is not what all victims say they need or ultimately discover they need. In short, we only like the “good victims” who endorse our most punitive policies and practices.

The reality is that most victims and survivors of murder victims are “good” in that sense, at least initially. And, just as it’s wrong to silence victims who do not care about or seek the harshest punishment for those who hurt them (because they need and deserve other forms of help), it would be wrong to tell “good” victims their thoughts and feelings aren’t real. Especially when they are as thoughtful and eloquent as Stephen Lich.

On its website (and I’m guessing in the upcoming May issue), Texas Monthly published a long essay in Lich’s words about why he wanted to witness the recent execution of his father’s killer. It’s in a form that we magazine folks call “as-told-to,” meaning a writer interviews the subject and weaves his words into a well-told story (in this case, the interviewer and word-weaver is the talented Michael Hall). Lich, originally an opponent of the death penalty, describes in powerful terms his decision to support efforts to execute Ramiro Hernandez Llanas, who raped Lich’s mother and killed his father in 1997.

For example:

I asked myself, If I were to meet Hernandez face-to-face, what would I say or do? And I thought, I would say “fuck you.” Fuck you for hurting my family; fuck you for making it so hard for people to relate; fuck you for depriving my children of their grandfather; fuck you for depriving me of the guidance I’ve needed as I’ve grown up. Fuck you for everything. Then I realized that there was no bigger insult to Hernandez, no bigger way for the world to say “fuck you” to him, than by condemning him to death.

The words, while disturbing — especially to those of us who seek alternative responses to crime — are undeniably real. In other parts of the essay, he turns the volume down to explain the factors that would have made him oppose the death penalty in this case, and describes what he does and doesn’t hope to get from the experience. In the ensuing controversy since the story was published two days ago, Lich gamely went on to defend his motives on the magazine’s Facebook page, where he wrote:

My reason for telling the story wasn’t sadism, not at all. I simply wanted to tell people what I experienced and how I reacted. In all the discussion of capital punishment, I’ve never read anything that explains what this experience is like for the victims’ family. If the story makes you feel more opposed to execution, that’s fine — but I hope that, at least, it gives you a more complete understanding.

From his description of his emotions throughout the more than 16 years between murder and execution, and of the execution itself, Lich shares his pain, doubts, sadness, and anger in a brutally honest way. It doesn’t diminish what I hope to do, in showing the lesser-seen flip side of this, to say that Lich has made an important contribution to our collective understanding of victims by cooperating with Texas Monthly in this story. All victims deserve to be heard — including those who don’t stick to the script we want for them.

Family time

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 11.29.58 AMAfter a crime or other tragedy, victims and survivors often experience for the first time what it feels like to be the subject of intense media curiosity. That can be an ugly, upsetting ordeal. Or, when handled with sensitivity and care, it can honor the victims by telling their stories in enough depth and detail that we all benefit by seeing their experience — their real experience, and not the prefabricated version concocted for ceremonies and schmaltz. Most surprising to outsiders is that the victims themselves, very often, will come to appreciate why this matters, and why it’s so different from the glaring lights of press-conference media attention that the public generally imagines.

Thanks to a talented Boston Globe writer, David Abel, and to Paige Williams at Nieman Storyboard, we have fresh insight into a powerful example of this phenomenon. The Globe on Sunday and Monday published Abel’s stories on the Richard family, which was touched most profoundly by last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. Williams followed that up with a Q&A in which Abel explains how he convinced the Richards to overcome their intense desire for privacy and allow him into their lives for six months. Part of it is about craft — how he combined observation and questions to recreate scenes, for example — but the underlying stories are the main event, and they are pure art.

This is the kind of work that puts the lie to the popular notion that all post-traumatic journalism is exploitative and worthless.

“Our good friends at the AP”

The New York Times has been accused in the past of churlishly refusing to share credit with competitors. It’s gotten somewhat more generous recently. Still, I was surprised at first that this lead story — on NYPD’s decision to shut down a controversial anti-terrorism unit that spied on Muslims — reached back to 2011 to give a nod to the Associated Press for first breaking the story.

Perhaps this explains the motivation: A member of the team that won a Pulitzer for AP’s work on the 2011 series was Matt Apuzzo. Yes, that would be the same Matt Apuzzo who left AP to join the Times last December, and who shares a byline on the Times‘ story today with Joseph Goldstein.

From the book reviews

Recent reviews of notable journalistic narratives about crime and justice:

1395951730000-Long-Mile-Home-FINALIn USA Today, Aamer Madhani calls two Boston Globe reporters’ book on the Boston Marathon bombings an exception to the rule that a first-anniversary narrative about a crime will feel like a rushed “notebook dump.” In Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice, authors Scott Helman and Jenna Russell produced “a riveting piece of journalism and an exceptional tribute to a great American city that manages to avoid being sentimental or syrupy.” The book’s only noted failing: a portrait of the accused killers that falls short of the rich characters portrayed among victims and heroes.

download1396980541Reviewer Tim Noah didn’t come to Matt Taibbi’s latest book with great expectations.  Rolling Stone veteran Taibbi, says Noah in a New York Times review, is given to “a blustery style” and “gonzo affectation.” But not this time. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap shows meticulous reporting in pursuit of a fresh take on an old story, where “bureaucratic imperatives in the criminal justice system can spin scarily out of control” and where banksters skate and poor racial minorities get screwed.

Who you calling gullible?

This is a story about the perils of jumping to conclusions and of taking what we read at face value. Times two.

When R. Scott Moxley reported for OC Weekly on Monday about a California prison inmate’s unsuccessful challenge of his lengthy prison term and conviction on charges of molesting young girls, the story quickly got picked up and repeated as an egregious example of juror bias. “The death of the presumption of innocence,” columnist Andrew Cohen called it at The Week“The myth of the impartial juror,” Washington Post blogger Radley Balko wrote.  Both relied on Moxley’s account of a juror in the case who blatantly refused to listen to the evidence and hold the government to its burden of proof.  Legal blogger Gideon despaired that this proves how untrustworthy American justice can be.

But that led to lawyerly harrumphing about stupid, untrustworthy journalists. One anonymous commenter David G. on Balko’s post, for example, wrote:

If you bother to go to the appellate decision in this case  you will see that the inflammatory rendition given above has no resemblance to what actually is on the record. There are many reasons to question our justice system. This isn’t one of them. Maybe I’ll go over to Fox News and see what made-up crisis they’ve got going.

And, at Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield said the story had the “wrong smell” and so he dug up the appellate decision and confirmed “things didn’t happen quite the way the article told them.” Greenfield’s money quote got picked up in an uncritical tweet by USA Today‘s Brad Heath:

Cue the mood-change music. Because the plot twists again, with a post by Gideon showing that reporter Moxley based his story on transcripts of the critical hearing involving the juror.  Tellingly, the courts reviewing the defendant’s claims of bias left out those facts.

To paraphrase David G., there are many reasons to question journalists’ competence and honesty. This isn’t one of them. Scott Moxley, take a bow (unless, of course, the plot twists again).

The case of the missing murders

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 8.57.42 AMThis is what watchdog reporting, married with effective narrative storytelling, looks like: a blockbuster report in the May issue of Chicago magazine by David Bernstein and Noah Isackson documenting how Chicago police jacked their crime data to make the city’s decline in murders look better than it was. Even for those of us accustomed to such stories — politically inspired massaging of crime data is, of course, a longstanding tradition — the details in this case are simply shocking, as the writers show in meticulous detail exactly how obvious homicides are dropped from the official count.

The reporting quality is matched by a compelling narrative. And, alongside the straightforward narrative are summaries and graphics like this one:

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 8.46.29 AM

The story relies heavily on anonymous sources, but with ample justification: Many of the sources are whistleblowing cops tattling on their numbers-obsessed bosses. The writers provide corroborating details, from documents and named sources, at every step.

The magazine promises a second installment, in the June issue, focusing on other violent crimes and property crime.

All in the cards

When Ezra Klein’s new project, now called Vox, first came into focus two months ago after his departure from the Washington Post, I couldn’t help but gush about the ideas I was hearing — ideas that promise a deeper, richer, smarter journalism on matters of public policy. Now that the site has launched and can put its plans into action, I’m happy to report that my initial reaction wasn’t misplaced.

An example relevant to our criminal-justice interests here on this blog: At the end of a story by Dara Lind about accusations of excessive force by the Border Patrol, a solid example of traditional reporting and storytelling  — albeit one that’s fairly dependent on earlier reporting by the Arizona Republic — we come to a “card.” This link-heavy explanation, titled “how does the United States patrol its borders?”, provides a deeper set of background facts that would have bogged down the story’s narrative but, in a sidebar, expands a curious reader’s education . Alongside this single card is a longer list relevant to immigration reform (I can’t find a way to link to this list in Vox’s “stacks”). Among the 27 cards in this stack is one titled “What else should I be reading on this subject,” with a seemingly smart list of trusted background.

The net result is a dynamic form of what we journalists often fail to provide when rushing to break news: necessary context. Klein, in his welcome note, explains the system of Vox cards and stacks:

They’re inspired by the highlighters and index cards that some of us used in school to remember important information. You’ll find them attached to articles, where they add crucial context; behind highlighted words, where they allow us to offer deeper explanations of key concepts; and in their stacks, where they combine into detailed — and continuously updated — guides to ongoing news stories. We’re incredibly excited about them.

In The New York Times today, Leslie Kaufman looks under the hood to describe Vox’s content-management system; not exactly a sexy topic, but for the site to deliver the goods it has to work well, and it does, so far.

Let’s not get too carried away. Near the end of Kaufman’s story in the Times, we learn that Vox is launching with 20 reporters. That’s serious by digital-startup standards, but paltry next to major newsgathering operations. If it picks its targets intelligently, covering select stories very well, it still could live up to its potential. And, I hope, grow. So far, so good.

The resilience myth

As I made clear in this post last month, I’m a fan of Susan Zalkind’s reporting and storytelling about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. I remain a fan, based on this new Washington Post piece of hers on myths surrounding the case — with one exception: her casual misunderstanding of what victims often need to recover from trauma.

In her intro to the WaPo story, she writes:

As the nation commemorates the resilience of runners, victims, first responders and residents, many questions surrounding this tragedy remain unresolved.

She isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, to focus on resilience as the polar opposite of trauma, and the chief virtue to be sought by victims. As a culture, we celebrate what we think it represents: overcoming adversity by showing we’re better than our attackers; toughing it out; Boston strong! There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment, of course, when we admire the strength and survival of victims. They deserve our admiration and indeed are toughing it out. But, as I tried to explain in this Pacific Standard article, those who suffer trauma and seek to recover by showing resilience — and those who in fact succeed at this — are the lucky ones, in a sense. And their recovery method is not the only way.

Those who suffer extreme trauma and cannot bounce back may suffer enough that they experience psychological growth as a result of their trauma. This phenomenon, post-traumatic growth, shows itself in many ways, but most commonly when a survivor’s life mission changes because of what she experienced and suffered. The oddity is that those who show resilience don’t  suffer enough psychological trauma for the growth engine  to kick in.

Either route victims take is, of course, up to their nature and the circumstances. But it’s a disservice to victims, and perhaps a dangerous way to steer them away from their real pain and what’s needed to help them out of it, to set the expectation that resilience is the only way out.

The 21st century pillory

pilloryThe mugshot-scam stories I blogged about in the past exposed an extortion racket that’s as cruel as it is unfair: Sites harvest suspects’ mugshots, publish them online, and then demand money to remove them — even though it’s practically impossible to wipe the image from every site and every search result once competing sites copy images from one another. Charges dropped? Acquitted by a jury? Too bad. Every time a friend or prospective employer Googles you, they see you at your worst moment.

At least that scheme makes economic sense, in a perverted way. But explain to me what purpose is served when ordinary news briefs from the police blotter turn into  Facebook posts dominated by a mugshot.

I’ll give you a couple of examples from the Facebook page of my local newspaper, the Daily Messenger in Canandaigua, New York. Click on the links to comments, and you’ll see the modern equivalent of a pillory, where townspeople gather to mock and hurl rotten fruit at sinners (and, yes, I see the irony in reposting mugshots, but I am trying to make a point!):



“Scum.” “I hope he gets all he deserves.” These and other comments, on far more mugshot posts than just the two I singled out, show a few things:

  • Mob mentality: getting satisfaction from insulting the accused.
  • Gullibility: assuming that charges equal guilt.
  • Gossip: commenters revealing they know the suspects, going on to share hunches and suspicions about the suspects’ moral character, family dysfunction, and more.

I don’t mean to pick on the Daily Messenger, which for the most part does a responsible job (disclosure: in 2013 I served as a member of the newspaper’s community advisory board, and I respect and like the editors I got to know during that volunteer stint). Nor do I question the civic and journalistic value of reporting on arrests, even minor ones, in a small town. Factual reporting on crime — including the ultimate resolution in court, as the Messenger also provides — is a basic and needed function of community newspapers, as uncomfortable as it can be sometimes. Neighbors will gossip anyway; such police-blotter stories at least provide facts.

But turning these into image-heavy posts on Facebook only provokes more gossip and ridicule, of a very public and permanent sort. I hope this and other newspapers see that potential for abuse and curb their enthusiasm for such posts.

Real change, however, requires readers to ask themselves what good comes from throwing those rhetorical tomatoes at a prisoner in the pillory. By assuming guilt before it’s proven, and by venting rage at friends and strangers alike when they’re at their most vulnerable, speaks to a mentality about crime and offenders that’s ingrained in our culture. Some of us are not content to let the criminal justice system test the truth of accusations and hold the guilty accountable. We then turn that into hatred toward the offender, an emotion that we need to express publicly for reasons that seem to go beyond shaming the wrongdoer. What exactly is that motivation? Moral superiority? Fear of falling victim to crime ourselves? Betrayal by those we trusted? Proving how tough we are?

Whatever it is, it isn’t pretty. And something tells me it’s not going to be easy to put back in the bottle.

Reasoning with doubt

Now that Michael Hall’s Texas Monthly serial The Murders at the Lake has concluded with part 5, let’s ponder this: Why should readers outside of Texas care enough about a 34-year-old triple murder to read 25,000 words reexamining a case that already has been meticulously documented over the years? What’s the point?

If I asked you to read 25,000 words on police misconduct, false confessions, and the effect DNA evidence has on old cases, chances are your eyes would glaze over. We all know the leaden effect of the dreaded five-part newspaper series, the contest-entry earnestness of intensely reported tomes that reach a minuscule audience by the time they drag us across the finish line.

But, when all the reporting that would produce such a series gets the literary treatment, the results can — in the right hands — turn out far more compelling to far more people. That is the case here, thanks to the talents of Hall and his editors. Reading the fruits of Hall’s year-long project these past two weeks has been, for me, an intense  experience as I came to know the story — a story I thought I knew from past articles and a book — through the narratives of five central characters. Those characters were so well chosen and so clearly portrayed that I never had that five-part-series letdown, where we look at how much ground we still must cover and ask, “Is it worth it to continue?”

If the only virtue of a story is its literary quality, however, it doesn’t necessarily rate as great journalism. So, back to the question: What was the point of telling the story of the Lake Waco murders? In my first post, at the outset of the series, I wondered what Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein meant when he pointed out the obvious: that the story “is not a legal document.” I never got an answer from Silverstein to my question about that (he was preoccupied this week). But I can answer my own question now.

In the next-to-last part, the character Hall uses to keep the story moving forward is the journalist Fredric Dannen, who landed a top-tier book contract to tell the story but for 15 years has been mired in delay, with still no book. Dannen’s stated mission: to prove conclusively that the four men convicted in the case — one of whom was executed, one who still sits in prison, and two others who have died — were innocent.

Hall got the jump on Dannen by telling his story (if not the story) at a length more akin to an e-single than a full-length book. More to the point, Hall does not reach a definitive conclusion. We’re left uncertain about who killed those kids, and whether these men were wrongly convicted. It seems likely they were, but doubt lingers.

And that’s how I now read Silverstein’s caveat. Our courts reach conclusions, beyond a reasonable doubt, even when it often turns out that further digging can turn up all kinds of doubt. Lawyers and scholars tend to look down on journalism for its lack of evidentiary standards. But when doubt is the story, that is a most honest ending — and a clear reason to learn about criminal justice through one well-told anecdote.


A writer and editor on law, crime, and business