What my crime victim series tries to show

What’s my point about crime victims?

During the months I’ve worked on my newly launched series at Slate on crime victims, I’ve blogged here about my work in progress and about some of the themes I’m exploring. In this particular post, I described in broad terms the point I’m trying to make in the stories I’m telling about certain people, places, and ideas. I wrote:

So far, the sentencing-reform debate has made little mention of crime victims. To the extent we think of them at all in this context, most people probably assume that any retreat from the toughest punishment policies equates to a betrayal of victims’ interests. By that thinking, sentencing reform is a zero-sum game: anything we “give” to prisoners and defendants (shorter sentences or more humane ways of promoting public safety) is something we take from victims.

What if that isn’t true? And what if the tough approach, as it has played out in politics and policy, ignores victims whose crimes go unreported and unsolved; ignores those for whom retribution toward criminals provides little lasting comfort; and paints a picture of victimhood that misunderstands who they are and what they need?

The kinds of victims and issues I explore show up from time to time in the news; to cite two familiar examples, when the families of the Charleston church massacre forgave the accused shooter, or when the parents of Boston Marathon victim Martin Richard opposed the death penalty for the bomber. These anecdotes tend to be fleeting exceptions to the rule that we expect victims to react a certain way. My series steps back and asks what all those exceptions mean.

The choices I’ve made and the conclusions I draw in my stories clearly display my point of view, which generally is to favor criminal-justice reform and to question the effectiveness and fairness of harsh punishment policies of recent decades. I hope readers will learn from the series, question my choices and conclusions, and gain a deeper appreciation for all different types of crime victims, not just the ones we tend to favor in our politics and imaginations. The point, in other words, is to listen to all victims.

The first story focuses on a remarkable reformer, Linda White, who took me up on my invitation to meet face to face with the man who killed her daughter. Their dramatic reunion (their first meeting years ago launched Linda’s career as a restorative-justice advocate) taught Linda new lessons in what it means to have a relationship with someone who hurt her so deeply — and what it means when a victim and the state have very different notions of how to hold someone accountable for such a terrible crime.

Spontaneous grace

As yesterday’s remarkable scene in a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom unfolded — family members of some of the nine victims of the church massacre spoke up at accused shooter Dylann Roof’s first court appearance to deliver their anguish directly to him over an in-court video connection, at the same time offering their forgiveness — my first thought was to wonder how a judge ever allowed this.

The answer to that question is hard to come by in news coverage of the hearing (more on that in a moment). But first, some thoughts on victim-offender dialogue and forgiveness — topics I’ve written about here and here, and that I’ll explore in depth in my upcoming series on crime victims.

In my years of reporting on this, reading the research underlying it and talking to dozens of victims and offenders who have been through it, I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing victims benefit from dialogue and forgiveness that I found the victims’ behavior yesterday less surprising than, say, comedian and writer Albert Brooks expressed in this tweet:

The president’s tweet on this topic echoed the sort of admiration we all must feel when we see such grace under horrifying circumstances:

We’re so conditioned to hearing from victims who are consumed with rage and hurt that when we see them behave differently we often act surprised. We shouldn’t be. Victims respond in many ways, usually changing as time goes on. When we let our assumptions about them drive policy — when we confuse accountability with vengeance, and project our own anger onto them — we do victims of all types a disservice. And we make a hash of punishment policies that have grown far out of whack because they’ve been driven by this misguided presumption about what all victims need.

So I should be glad to see conciliatory victims on such prominent display. But yesterday’s rush to confront and forgive comes dangerously close to subjecting the victims’ survivors to a new form of trauma. Without adequate preparation and counseling, this sort of volatile, unplanned meeting could backfire on the victims. Ordinarily, victims get a chance to speak to an offender at sentencing, or later on in mediated dialogue. The latter is especially intense and, when done correctly, requires elaborate, careful preparation. Yesterday’s session, by contrast, seems to have happened spontaneously, carrying with it an added element of possible coercion — when one victim expresses forgiveness, how can others, particularly church people, withhold the same, even if they aren’t ready to give it? I’m not saying the forgiveness wasn’t genuine, but imagine the pressure on those who didn’t speak first, or at all, to follow the prescribed route to righteousness.

How did yesterday’s encounter come about? Most of the reports I read in search of an answer — in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and NPR, among many others — merely described the scene as emotional and unexpected, treating the victim statements as something of an unexplained fluke. The closest anyone comes to explaining it that I saw was the Charleston Post and Courier‘s Andrew Knapp, who writes that Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., who rarely conducts bond hearings, simply opened the floor to the victims’ families by asking if any wanted to speak.

From all indications, Gosnell — whose remarks expressing sympathy for Roof’s family as well as for the victims later drew scorn — turned the routine hearing into something else out of a desire to unite the community at an upsetting time. But at this point there are just hints at his motives, no clear explanations. If it’s true that Gosnell was winging it, someone needs to sit him down and teach him more about proper trauma care.

In her report on the hearing, USA Today‘s Mary Nahorniak quotes defense lawyers not involved in the case who express reservations about the time and place for such victim statements. They’re worried about Roof’s right to a fair trial, as they should be. At the same time, we all should hope that the victims’ families get what they really need for the long haul: trauma care that eases them into a lifelong process of coming to grips with their shocking loss.  

One woman’s legacy

At The Intercept, journalist Liliana Segura today published a powerful story with facts remarkably parallel to the story that will mark the debut of my upcoming series on crime victims.

Segura’s story focuses on Paula Cooper, who killed herself in May, two years after her release from prison for a notorious murder. The most remarkable twist in Cooper’s sad story involves Bill Pelke, the grandson of Cooper’s victim. Segura writes:

The more Bill learned about Paula, the more he was certain his grandmother would have forgiven her. He tried to visit her in prison, but was denied permission — it was against policy to allow convicted murderers to see members of their victim’s family. So Bill and Paula wrote letters. Their correspondence would last years. When 19-year-old Paula’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in July 1989, Bill’s first words were, “Praise the Lord!” And by the time she was released on good behavior, on June 17, 2013, neither was the same person they had been in 1985. Paula was a grown women who had earned her GED, multiple degrees, and the support of prisoners and activists alike. Bill, now in his 60s, had founded Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, one of the most influential anti-death penalty groups in the country, led by victims of crime. He had also gained permission to see Paula, visiting her 14 times.

The story that starts my series, which will be published soon at Slate, looks at a similar survivor who had a similar response to the person who harmed her loved one. We are so conditioned to expect, even demand, that victims act only one way that no matter how many times we hear of victims like Bill Pelke we act surprised. The point of my story is to look at another memorable victim-offender encounter, and then to use it as a window into questions about how victim advocacy has come to be defined in ways that marginalizes the kind of work Pelke does.

Paula Cooper’s story is not a happy one. These stories don’t lend themselves to happy endings. But the lessons we can draw from learning about Cooper’s journey, and her effect on Pelke, can only help the rest of us understand different ways of reacting to crime.

Glass half-full

In the first two parts of a three-part New York Review of Books series on the quality of journalism online, Michael Massing has amassed a thoughtful collection of reported anecdotes that serves as an unusually detailed snapshot of the current state of the industry. Part one evaluates the quality of first-generation online journalism and declares it kind of “meh.” Part two asks how digital startups of more recent vintage have fared. His verdict: disappointing and uneven, with such heralded innovations as longform narratives “stillborn.” (Massing says his third part will appear later this year.)

While I appreciate Massing’s focus on editorial quality instead of the usual hand-wringing about the commercial prospects of online publishing, I see his take on things as entirely too pessimistic — at least when it concerns the criminal-justice journalism that I pay close attention to.

I’m not a preternaturally positive guy, especially on the topic of quality journalism. After all, consider: a decimated business model in traditional publishing; stagnant wages and free-falling freelance rates; the ascendance of the most vapid forms of journalism as product-promoting PR, celebrity-celebrating fluff, and listicle-churning clickbait. I regularly see friends and former colleagues laid off, fellow freelancers abandoning journalism for gigs as sponsored-content writers, and newsroom morale rotting in a stew of idiotic corporate Dilbert-itis and quality-killing staffing losses. In crime news specifically, it’s far easier to find exploitative, mindless scare stories aimed at fueling rage and resentment than to see stories deeply reported and emotionally powerful that offer solutions and understanding.

But here are some snapshots of my own that show why developments in the past year or two justify optimism:


Here’s last week’s City and Regional Magazine Awards‘ crime-heavy winners list. That’s not surprising, considering what any major journalism awards list looks like year after year. There is such a surfeit of deeply reported, meaningful journalism and so many ways to find it — from curated sites and feeds, and from daily newsletters like those from The Marshall Project and The Crime Report — that it’s impossible to keep up with it all. And equally impossible to take seriously the frequently made claim that “the media” (as if it’s just one, monolithic thing) don’t care about substance.

I recently abandoned my unpaid work in keeping my own list of standout stories, simply because the volume overwhelmed me and was seriously cutting into my productive time to earn a living doing this work instead of just talking about it. (I still post links to such stories several times a day on my social-media feeds, though I no longer feel obligated to read and critique more than I can fit into my schedule.)

Last week’s conference of Investigative Reporters & Editors drew about 1,800 journalists to several days of high-level seminars on producing public-interest, accountability journalism. Judging from my Twitter feed, the conference continues to grow and has lost none of its power as an inspirational gathering of the craft’s leading practitioners.

The point is: If you claim this kind of journalism is going away, then you’re just not looking for it.


On Saturday night, one of my former students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Julie McMahon of the Syracuse Post-Standard, won AP New York state honors as young journalist of the year. She also won first places for beat reporting (she covers the cops beat) and for features. Here is her winning story, a powerful story about a gunshot victim’s recovery. In just her first few years as a pro, she has shown she has the brains, skills, and work ethic to carve out a significant role for herself in a business (both generally, and specifically at the Post-Standard) that has been declared all but dead.

She is hardly alone in that. Look, for example, at the winners and their work in the recently announced Livingston Awards, where important criminal-justice stories dominate.


Though The Marshall Project gets most of the attention, as the boldest crime-focused digital-journalism startup — and deservedly, as its stellar team consistently produces smart, deep storytelling on the most important policy topics — crime stories with true merit regularly sprout at such sites as The Intercept, Reveal, Vox, Yahoo News, Vice, The Atavist, TakePart, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, Matter, Texas Tribune (and many other regional digital-news outlets), podcasts such as Life of the Law and Criminal, and many others. Not to mention old-timers like Politico, Slate, and Alternet.

Will they all survive while sustaining the current output of ambitious journalism? Of course not. But think back just a few years, to a time when all we ever heard was naysaying about the potential for any seeds to sprout in the Web’s fallow soil. Here we are, awash in good stuff by new players, at traditional and digital-native operations alike, and by young and not-so-young journalists making a living at it.

Massing’s point is broader than my crime-specific take on the business. But, from what I see happening in the journalism of science, politics, sports, culture, and business, crime journalism is no outlier. Though the business models continue to struggle for footing, we’re creating the necessary precursor for any successful business and industry: a quality product that draws an audience and serves the public interest.

Charnice and David

Charnice Milton, age 27
Charnice Milton, age 27
David Butler, age 42
David Butler, age 42

I’ve spent the past year interviewing dozens of crime victims and survivors of murder victims, and so sometimes I’m asked what my connection is to victims of crime — whether I’ve been a victim, or lost a loved one. I always say no, that I have been fortunate not to have any direct experience with what I try to describe.

That’s mostly true. But I never mention David Butler, a colleague long ago at The Houston Post. I barely knew David — he was a copy editor in the main office, while I was a downtown bureau reporter, and we rarely worked together on stories — but when I saw him in April 2000 in Houston at a Post reunion, we chatted and I was reminded of his nerdy charms: a bookish, relentlessly straight-arrow guy. Three months later, David was on his way home to Arlington, Virginia, from work as an editor at Stars and Stripes in Washington, D.C., when a robber shot him to death for his wallet. Police never solved the case.

Yesterday, I learned of Charnice Milton’s shooting death, also in Washington. I met Charnice in 2011, when I taught at Syracuse University. She was a graduate journalism student at the Newhouse School. Though she never took a class from me, I met her when I put out the call for applicants to attend a three-day trip I organized each year to Manhattan for visits with magazine editors. Charnice struck me as earnest and shy, almost painfully so, but once I spent time with her on the drives down and back to the city, and in the meetings at magazine offices, I saw a serious young woman intent on making a career in journalism. Like David Butler, Charnice was uncommonly innocent. While her classmates partied hard after hours, Charnice went sightseeing. And when her classmates shyly or sullenly remained silent during meetings with editors, I could count on her to fill those moments with a barrage of questions. It was easy to admire her spirit.

Charnice was killed Wednesday night while changing buses as she made her way home after covering a community meeting for Capital Community News. Police told the Washington Post that Charnice was struck by a bullet fired at someone else. The Post‘s description of her work filled me with sadness, as I got a belated update on what Charnice had made of her dream since I last saw her:

Milton was known as a tireless advocate for the communities east of the Anacostia where she lived and chronicled everyday life, using grass-roots-style journalism whether profiling a lifelong Ward 7 resident and avid cyclist or examining penalties for selling alcohol to minors.

“Not only did they gun down a young woman, they also silenced one of our reporters,” said Andrew Lightman, managing editor of Capital Community News, where Milton was a regular contributor. “I think it’s a real loss not only for us and her family but also the communities that she covered. . . . She was one of a handful of reporters across the District who was looking at the nuts and bolts of everyday life.”

My sorrow for these two gentle people, killed doing the work they loved, pales next to the grief suffered by those who knew them far more intimately. But their deaths remind me of the duty I have to imagine and then describe what each loss means.

The myth of closure

Can someone please tell all elected officials and pundits to strike the word “closure” from their vocabulary when they’re talking about crime victims? Boston Mayor Martin Walsh predictably invoked the term after the jury’s verdict for the death penalty was announced Friday in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “I hope this verdict,” the mayor said in a prepared statement, “provides a small amount of closure to the survivors, families, and all impacted by the violent and tragic events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon.”

As many victims are quick to point out, and as much of the research of victims’ experiences shows, there is no such thing as closure. If by closure we mean the bad experience comes to an end, and it can be put behind us, then we’re imposing impossible expectations on victims — and on the justice system that we expect to deliver this magical emotional state.

Every victim of violent trauma I have ever interviewed sounds like the marathon survivors quoted in these Boston Globe and New York Times stories after the verdict. They talk about a weight lifted, turning a page, feeling satisfaction when the person who harmed them has been held accountable and punished. What I especially liked about those stories was the variety of viewpoints aired without judgment. Victims deserve space, and help, to come to their own conclusions about what works. And they need time to evolve, as so many victims do, traveling from anger to some version of peace. They can’t close that part of their life, but they can eventually make peace with it.

The value of a high profile case like this is that the extensive storytelling surrounding the event and the characters lets us hear in more detail how real people cope with loss and trauma. There are lessons in this — if we listen — about what all crime victims experience to one degree or another. Hardly any crime victims get the kind of support that the marathon victims have received, monetary and emotional. That’s not a knock against these victims. They suffered terribly, they were targeted as symbols of our country, and they deserve anything and everything we can give them. But we must remember that the best other victims normally can hope for is a check to cover some funeral expenses, a brief stint in counseling, and some help in navigating a criminal justice system that will listen to them only when their views align with prosecutors’.

Perhaps these lessons won’t sink in with politicians. But the rest of us can remember them the next time we feel the urge to impose our own assumptions on how victim ought to feel.

Moms I’ve met

Victims' advocate and mother Dorothy Johnson-Speight
Victims’ advocate and mother Dorothy Johnson-Speight

Dorothy Johnson-Speight once dreamed of working with her son to help children. He was a middle school teacher in Philadelphia. She is a licensed counselor. “So his goal,” she told me, “was to go back and get his master’s degree. And I promised I would go back and get my Ph.D. and we were going to work with children at risk together.”

Her son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, was shot to death in 2001 by a man angered over a disputed parking space. In 2003, Johnson-Speight formed Mothers In Charge, which has grown into a nationwide network of groups supporting and advocating for mothers who have lost children to violence.

She is just one of many remarkable mothers I have met during the past year as I worked on my upcoming series about crime victims who seek solutions to violence that focus on prevention and healing rather than just punishing offenders. Today, Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of all those mothers I met in my reporting, or whose stories I heard from their loved ones. People like:

  • Adela Barajas, who helped raise her brother’s children after her sister-in-law was gunned down in front of the family. Barajas now leads a group in Laura Sanchez’s honor that tries to save the children of her South Los Angeles neighborhood from violence and prison and gives the neighborhood’s Latina mothers a place to meet to share their pain and joy.
  • Marilyn Sage Meagher of Houston, whose murder inspired her brother to devote his life to using crime victims as counselors in prison to improve prisoners’ chances of living good lives once they are released. Now Meagher’s daughter is doing that counseling work as well.
  • Misty Wallace, who is raising her children after recovering from a near-fatal gunshot, and who now makes joint appearances with her shooter to counsel prisoners to turn their lives around.
  • Maria Guzman, who lost two sons to murder 29 years apart, and whose surviving son now works tirelessly for victim support and violence prevention. When we met in her tiny Los Angeles apartment, I asked if the pain dulls over the years. No, she replied.

    Lo mismo cada día.” It’s the same every day.

I’ve been privileged to hear their stories and many others’. These are the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. It’s impossible to talk to these women, or about these women with their survivors, without thinking of my own privileged life, largely free of the kinds of trauma and sadness that they have endured — and not just endured, but turned into a force for positive change. Please keep them and their families in your thoughts today as we celebrate motherhood.

Nightstand reading lists on hiatus

I’ve decided to put my “criminal-justice nightstand reading” series on indefinite hiatus. It’s a lot of work without pay, and without any discernible benefit to me.

I started it last year when I was invited to move my blog to The Marshall Project. I figured it would be a content-rich contribution that I could make to that excellent site and that it was a natural extension of what I was doing already in tweeting links to crime good-reads.

But, when TMP changed course and decided it wasn’t hosting outside writers’ blogs after all, I kept it going here as something of an experiment in altruism. How long would I want to write frequent critiques of criminal-justice journalism narratives? Well, the experiment is now complete and we have our answer: until right about now.

I appreciate the kind comments I’ve received from readers who enjoy it. I’ll still post about notable criminal-justice narrative journalism on my social media feeds (sign up for any of them via the links on the left rail of this page).

On this blog, I’ll continue to post about my work and about the issues that I’m focused on in my reporting: namely, these days, crime victims and criminal justice reform.

Thanks for reading.

Nightstand reading: Sunday, 4/26/15

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

  • Sarah Stillman gets inside the world of extortionists targeting the most vulnerable victims of all: undocumented immigrants. She describes the criminals’ strategy and how U.S. immigration policy fits into the picture. (The New Yorker)
  • Roger Parloff looks at a technology and a business that’s stalled on the launch pad, even though it can save lives without impinging on any rights. In his usual methodical, dispassionate way, Paroloff explains how smart guns work and what the makers and sellers of them ran up against in America’s extreme gun-rights movement. (Fortune)
  • Liz Dwyer shows a Chicago anti-violence campaign, Unforgotten, that brings gun-violence victims back to life, in a manner of speaking, to drive home its point about what has been lost. Watch the story’s accompanying video, especially the part where a stranger pats the shoulder of the mannequin victim. Unforgettable. (TakePart)
  • Skip Hollandsworth produces one of his trademark true-crime pieces on rich people behaving badly. This time, a lovesick Amarillo doctor and his dopey hit-man sidekick kill the doctor’s rival for the affections of a woman who seems interested in the men mainly for their ability to buy flashy gifts. Thanks once again, Texas. (Texas Monthly)

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.

Series update: Last draft in

This coming week marks the official end of my yearlong Soros Justice Fellowship. After some long days, I just hit send on the sixth and final installment of my series. Well, to be accurate, it’s my draft of said installment. Now, it goes into the editing queue with all of the others, which are in various stages of editing and revision.

Typical of long-form reported narrative journalism, the first draft is the start of an often-arduous process between writer and editor to clarify, sharpen, usually shorten, and polish. Sometimes a writer must do more reporting, as has been the case already on some of my stories. Often it’s just about the writing. No matter what, it’s a lot of work, and enough to make even the most self-confident among us a bit queasy with doubt about our ability to tell a story. And, for the record, I am far from the most self-confident. So it’s a difficult process. Complicating matters is that the fellowship was my paying job for 12 months, but now I need other work to pay the bills. So the coming month promises to be a challenge in many ways.

But, as a longtime editor myself, I know the process makes stories much better. So, after a trip to New York starting tomorrow for my fellowship, I’ll return on Thursday to revising and whipping into final shape the series that I hope gets published in not so many more weeks.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business