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.

Nightstand reading: Monday, 4/20/15

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:

  • James Verini‘s tale of bravery and adventure at the point of a gun takes the reader inside a Somali-piracy case, showing the terrorized crew’s trauma through nearly four years of captivity. The crew of the Albedo was captured at the height of Somalia’s piracy problem, which Verini shows in all its cold, profit-minded cruelty. (The New Yorker)
  • Eli Saslow‘s daring, original writing turns this story of one police officer’s firing into a tense tale of small-town racism. (Washington Post)
  • Charles Blair shows how dismissing Timothy McVeigh as simply evil or crazy misses the real meaning of what happened before, during, and after McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma City federal building 20 years ago. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
  • On the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, a team of Tulsa World reporters and photojournalists produced this deeply moving package of reports on the victims and the aftermath of that infamous terror attack.
  • Here’s the backstory to, and a preview of, Jon Krakauer‘s latest: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. (Wall Street Journal) And here’s Janet Maslin’s review of the book, which she reports was rushed to print after the Rolling Stone debacle. (New York Times)
  • This year’s Pulitzer Prizes honor some notable criminal-justice journalism: The big prize, Public Service, went to the Charleston Post-Courier for its series on domestic violence (I blogged about it here). The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg won for Commentary on Texas’ grand jury system (something of a misnomer, considering how deeply reported her stories were). And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won the Breaking-News Photography prize for its coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

On the blog:

  • I critiqued Mother Jones‘ important report on the costs of gun violence. The story’s focus is on dollars, as that is the least-often told side of the story, but the victim stories in the report were powerful reminders of how much money and pain gun victims suffer.
  • I examined the questions about justice and victims’  rights prompted by the announcement by the family of Martin Richard, the youngest victim killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, publicly opposing the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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.

Victims, let’s make a deal

lets-make-a-deal-doorsThe latest performance of an awkward game between crime victims and prosecutors is taking place in Boston, where the Marathon bombing trial’s punishment phase starts on Tuesday. While it’s not at all uncommon for victims like the Richard family to take the stand they did against the death penalty for their son’s killer, their eloquence in a public forum — immediately following a guilt-phase trial in which prosecutors emphasized their son Martin’s death — put U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz in an especially tight jam.

Ortiz struck a diplomatic tone in her response, more so than some prosecutors facing similar predicaments in the past. Ortiz told the Boston Globe:

[A]s I have previously assured both Bill and Denise [Richard], I care deeply about their views and the views of the other victims and survivors. As the case moves forward we will continue to do all we can to protect and vindicate those injured and those who have passed away.”

In other words, a polite thank-you-for-your-input brushoff. (Presumably she has the same response to the sister of one of the other four fatalities in the case, who has also come out against executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.)

Not that it’s possible for her to fulfill the wishes of all victims of the two bombings and the subsequent manhunt, much less all members of the public she serves. But therein lies the rub. When prosecutors intent on winning the toughest possible sentences shift the focus from public justice to avenging the losses suffered by individual victims, they’re bound to confuse the issues and the stakes. Victims who need help beyond retribution end up believing that is society’s principal means of giving them justice. Victims, like the Richards, who oppose the harshest punishment — for any number of reasons, and often long after the trial when they discover it has not helped them heal — are told, in effect, to stand aside. And the public gets yet another lesson in defining justice solely as maximum punishment.

A pair of newspaper stories this week explain in two ways why the occasional prosecutor-victim conflict is a natural byproduct of tough-on-crime politics. First, Kevin Johnson’s 20th anniversary story in USA Today on the Oklahoma City federal building bombing summarized the many ways in which that case inspired a number of reforms in pro-prosecution, pro-death penalty victim rights. Left unstated: the usually silent victims who are not comforted by those measures.

Then, Los Angeles Times editorialist Michael McGough told how the victims’ rights movement redefined justice as a means “to avenge private wrongs and provide closure for crime victims and their families.” It’s a mistake, he concludes, only remedied by reverting to the traditional and official take on justice: treating crime strictly as an offense against the state. What should we do for victims in these circumstances? He doesn’t say.

There’s no single, simple solution. But, if we focused much more on what victims really need — all victims, in all their variety — then the inevitable conflicts that arise over victims’ role in our adversarial system might diminish in importance. A victim’s experience might be defined less by the outcome of her offender’s trial and more by what services we provided to ease her pain. Trials and punishment debates won’t go away, but if they occurred on a parallel track rather than existing as the only track, victims might come out of these situations with a better chance of feeling whole again.

Defining justice as anything other than punishment might sound kooky in a culture where that’s practically all we ever consider, and where the standard perspective we get of victims is as advocates for the harshest punishment. But do they choose that route because it’s the only just outcome, or because it’s the only outcome usually offered to them? As one restorative-justice advocate put it to me recently, our justice system is like the game show Let’s Make A Deal (“what’ll it be? Door Number 1, door Number 2, or door Number 3?”), but in this version there’s only one door. And of course they pick that one.

Giving them more choices and focusing on needs other than just vengeance will naturally lead to fewer cases in which victims must resort to writing newspaper op-eds to plead to be heard.

Numbers and lives

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 5.35.23 PMAs part of a memorable report on the true costs of gun violence, a Mother Jones team — Mark Follman, Julie Lurie, Jaeah Lee, and James West — powerfully tells victims’ stories alongside data-driven reporting on the dollars and cents. The data side of the report is impressive enough, as it methodically quantifies the knowns and unknowns of what gun violence costs this country. But the human side of the stories goes to the heart of what victims suffer when injured by gunfire, or when their loved ones die in gun violence.

In a companion package of stories, we meet eight victims and survivors who tell their stories in short form: how they were injured, and the financial and other loses they have suffered. One of them, Jennifer Longdon, is the focus of the main story as she eloquently describes the attack that left her and her fiancé profoundly disabled and her anti-violence advocacy in Phoenix. Accompanying the text story are three videos: one summarizing the nationwide costs of gun violence, and two on Longdon’s case. The first of those describes the crime itself. The second, shown below, addresses the costs to Longdon. Hear Longdon talk about her losses beyond the financial. “Nothing,” she says, “was ever going to be simple or easy again.”

Nightstand reading: Tuesday, 4/14/15

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:

  • Ever since Bryan Burrough‘s days at the Missouri School of Journalism (he was an undergrad when I was there as a grad), I’ve been a fan of his reporting and writing. Through his front-page Wall Street Journal features, his books (Barbarians at the Gate and at least three others on my bookshelves), and countless Vanity Fair features, I’ve been drawn to his deeply reported narrative style. So, when I saw his excerpt from Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, I eagerly read it, and was richly rewarded. This is essential history, and discomfiting for reconstructed ’60s leftists who’d rather forget how violent their movement, at its fringes at least, turned. This excerpt focuses on the leaders of a bombing campaign targeting police, the military, and anyone else who got in the way. (Vanity Fair)
  • It’s been a tough few months for Rolling Stone and its reputation for good journalism. Along with legitimate criticism for its University of Virginia rape story, the magazine has been maligned unfairly as merely a music magazine that has no business attempting serious journalism, a view that’s ignorant of the magazine’s long, proud history for serious public affairs journalism. This story by Guy Lawson, on a group of high school wrestlers turned oxycodone kingpins, is the kind of work that I hope RS continues to produce. In the nut graf, he carefully spells out how he confirmed what he was told by the drug-gang participants — a sign, perhaps, that the magazine knows it is in damage control mode. (Rolling Stone)
  • Dahlia Lithwick tells the wrongful-conviction horror story to beat all others. Michael McAllister has been imprisoned 29 years for a crime that even his prosecutor has said since 1993 he didn’t commit. Now months past his official release date, McAllister remains locked up as a violent predator, though he’s almost certainly innocent. Lithwick gives credit for to the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, Frank Green, who’s pursued the story since 2002. (Slate)
  • Previously I linked to two excerpts from Masha Gessen‘s book The Brothers, on the Tsarnaevs of Boston Marathon bombing infamy. Now, it gets the lead-book-review treatment from The New York Times, with former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assessing this work of journalism as incomplete and too enamored of conspiracy theories. Gessen also weighed in recently once again, this time with a Times op-ed, posing her own list of questions unanswered in the trial of the surviving brother, Dzhokhar.
  • Kimberly Kindy and Kimbriell Kelly conduct a study that shows the odds favoring cops in disputed shootings: few get charged, even fewer get convicted. The story goes well beyond numbers to explain the factors affecting the investigations and verdicts. (Washington Post)
  • Stephen Battaglio reports on Chris Hansen’s crowd-funding campaign to reprise his “Catch a Predator” gig. The former NBC reporter’s schtick — running sting operations to lure Internet predators intent on sex with minors — always struck me as a creepy cop wannabe act that milks ratings from crimes that wouldn’t have happened but for him. But maybe that’s just me. (Los Angeles Times)
  • Criminologist David Kennedy, using journalist Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside as a discussion point, explains what the world would look like to whites if they faced what blacks do in cities where there’s too much of the wrong kind of policing and not nearly enough of the right kind. (Los Angeles Times)

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.

Nightstand reading: Wednesday, 4/8/15

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:

  • Robert Kolker, another big name in crime journalism appearing for the first time at The Marshall Project, tells a shocking story that calls into question the very rationale of long prison sentences. Rene Lima-Marin got sentenced to an excessive 98 years for a pair of armed robberies. Then, through an administrative error, he got released after just 10 years. He lived a productive life outside for more than five years as a hard-working, church-going family man, only to be sent back to serve at least 40 more years toward the balance of his original conviction. (The Marshall Project)
  • Katy Vine writes the hell out of this border tale of drug-cop corruption. Her story of the Panama Unit, a gang of Texas cops skimming drugs and cash from their extracurricular raids, reads like a literary short story. (Texas Monthly)
  • Brad Heath once again demonstrates his enterprise and skill as an investigative reporter with a story revealing a DEA program lasting 21 years that tracked huge numbers of phone calls by Americans. The story examines the legal and strategic factors underlying the secret program, and how Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations contributed to its demise. (USA Today)
  • A team from ProPublica (T. Christian Miller and Ryan Gabrielson) and from The New Orleans Advocate (Ramon Antonio Vargas and John Simerman) shows how the rape spree by former NFL player Darren Sharper could have been stopped much sooner, if only the policies meant to help investigate and prosecute rape had been used effectively. (ProPublica/New Orleans Advocate)
  • Chris Thompson tells the story of Mean Streets, a reporting project started by WNYC and continued by a Columbia j-school data journalism project, dedicated to documenting every traffic fatality. It does for traffic victims what other sites do for homicide victims, and this story shows what a huge effort that takes. (Poynter)
  • Christina Maza looks at the collision between revenge-porn laws, meant to protect victims, and a law that lies at the core of legal protections for web publishers. (Christian Science Monitor)

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 writer and editor on law, crime, and business