Mired in progress

January becomes a lost month for many journalists. We’re consumed with something called “Progress.”

Many daily papers produce a progress edition this time of year to generate advertising during a traditionally slow revenue cycle. Having been on that end of the business with my own advertising-supported humor publication, I fully appreciate the need. Except I used to simply suspend publication. In the real world, newspapers don’t have that luxury.

Progress editions require exhaustive legwork on the part of reporters. I have to say that, in the 14 years I’ve been with the Ashland Times-Gazette, it’s been interesting stuff for the most part. To me, it’s always fascinating learning how things work in business and industry (including agriculture, which is big in our county).

But — and that’s a big “but” — reporters are required to maintain their normal workload during progress time. Crime continues, people crash their cars, buildings burn, schools and government function with varying degrees of success. We still have to cover it.

I’ve come to enjoy my work. But, there are times when there’s too much of a good thing.


Jury wrongly convicted in the press

The story behind the story

Tavis Smiley’s interview with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter last night on PBS jogged my memory about a pissing contest I got into with a colleague at another paper a few months ago.

Carter’s case became a cause célèbre after Bob Dylan wrote a song about his wrongful conviction for murder. Carter was later exonerated and released from prison. He’s now dedicated his life to helping free other wrongfully convicted people.

Smiley and Carter talked about the Innocence Project, a lawyer-driven organization committed to freeing wrongly convicted inmates through post-conviction DNA testing.

The Innocence Project and a big-city daily produced an award-winning series of articles about inmates in Ohio who might have been wrongly convicted. One of them was Arthur Swanson.

Swanson was convicted of roughing up and robbing a crippled Amish man at the man’s farm in front of his wife and son. Swanson eventually died in prison, but the folks at the Innocence Project and my colleagues at the big-city newspaper wanted to clear his name. They maintain that DNA evidence could exonerate Swanson because the case against him was weak.

When I read that, my gut response was “Now wait a damn minute!” I covered the trial for the Ashland Times-Gazette. It was a slam-dunk case in which the defendant’s own mother and his best friend unwittingly shot down his alibi. (Although his mom told my colleague at the big-city daily the opposite of what she had testified to in court.) Furthermore, two of Swanson’s coworkers testified that he tried to recruit him to rob the Amish. Witnesses and fingerprints placed him in the area.

I wrote an article to set the record straight. When I contacted my colleagues at the big-city paper for comment, they circled the wagons. The editor contacted my editor. That didn’t get the story quashed. Understandably, the reporter became defensive. No matter what evidence I presented to the contrary, he refused to admit that the Innocence Project was barking up the wrong tree in this case. The reporter, who implied through the way he played his story that the victim favored DNA testing if it would exonerate the perp, again contacted the victim to get him to say what he wanted him to say. He then contacted me and told me that, since the victim once again told him he favored DNA testing if it would clear Swanson, I would have to write my story to reflect that. Just one problem. I contacted the victim also. His quote, which appears at the end of my story, more accurately represents his sentiments. That comment was made after my colleague had contacted him.

For the record, I fully support efforts to exonerate anyone wrongly convicted for a crime. Unlike my colleague — and I suspect unlike many people at the Innocence Project — I know what the inside of a jail cell looks like. I also spent 14 years of my life working as a volunteer driver for a busing program providing transportation to prisons for inmates’ families who couldn’t otherwise afford it. The program was started by the Black Panthers. (I’m saying this because the folks at the Innocence Project and my colleague would love to paint me as a small-town bigot and law-and-order type.)

I felt compelled to set the record straight, in part, because I hate to see folks at the Innocence Project stake their good reputation on a bad case. On the other hand, in my heart of hearts, I have to wonder whether there have been cases in which rightly convicted inmates were released because Innocence Project lawyers omitted crucial information as they had in the Swanson case. They had that information in the trial transcripts — damning testimony from witness after witness. Yet, whoever reviewed the case for them wrote off that testimony as inconsequential.

My colleagues at the big-city daily are standing by their story. Which is kind of  like standing on a three-legged stepladder.

Judge for yourself. Below is are PDF files of my story, followed by links to the story for those who subscribe to the paper.

Swanson article


Article: http://www.times-gazette.com/news/article/4928694

Infobar that ran with the article: http://www.times-gazette.com/news/article/4928699

News flashes – my take on current events

On the anniversary of last year’s devastating earthquake, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has returned to Haiti. Apparently he came back after 25 years in exile to reassure the Haitian people that things really could be worse.

Said Duvalier, “Hey all you people, stop your whining or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Winter Canoeing – Iced Out

Canoe Trip Journal

black fork canoe trip circa 1999

Happier times — winter canoe camping on the upper Black Fork

The canoe trip window of opportunity closed today. The Black Fork is frozen over. Yesterday, there were ice shelves on both sides but a channel of open water in the middle. This afternoon, as I drove over the river on State Route 603, there were only a few pools of open water.

Black Fork of the Mohican River is the last part to freeze. I don’t know whether it’s the warmer water coming through the dam from Charles Mill Lake or the many springs in the area. Both, I suspect.

The riffles and runs on the river are still open. The pools are either frozen over or, worse yet, slush. At least with the ice, you can get out of the canoe and push it to open water. When I first started winter canoeing, I learned the hard way that you don’t pull your boat across the ice. Better the boat finds the thin ice than you.

You can usually paddle Black Fork from the dam to the confluence with Clear Fork then four five miles on the mainstream of the Mohican after that.

Now I have to wait for the January thaw. If that doesn’t happen soon, I might just have to lug my tent and sleeping bag into the woods and camp.

The story behind the story

The Life & Times-Gazette of Irv Oslin

Chasing the boogeyman — part two

In the previous post I mentioned that I was covering an ethnic intimidation trial. The verdict did not surprise me. After all, the alleged perp was tried by a jury of his peers, not by a jury of the victim’s peers. Not many Saudi Arabians qualified for jury duty in Ashland County.

Here’s the news article, which should give you an idea of how it went. It will be followed by comments posted on the Times-Gazette Website. As I had said in the previous post, my hope was that it generated dialog. It did.

The defendant
William A. Gedraitis sits in Municipal Court Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 during his trial. Photo by Tom E. Puskar

William Gedraitis

T-G Staff Writer
A Municipal Court jury found a Perrysville man innocent Thursday of ethnic intimidation against a Middle Eastern man.
William A. Gedraitis was charged with menacing and ethnic intimidation in connection with an incident Sept. 1 at Denny’s Restaurant on U.S. 250 East.
After deliberating for less than an hour, the jury found him not guilty on both counts.
According to court testimony, Gedraitis, 41, 2985 County Road 917, had been drinking with friends at Beano’s in Loudonville and later went to Denny’s.
The alleged victim, Fahad A. Alsifiany of Ashland, testified that he had three or four beers earlier in the evening at Linder’s, went home, then later went alone to Denny’s to eat.
Alsifiany is from Saudi Arabia. He came to the U.S. to complete his education and has been living in Ashland with his wife while she attended Ashland University. She recently completed her master’s degree.
At about 2:45 a.m., Gedraitis walked up to where Alsifiany was seated in a corner booth, shook his hand and sat next to him. Alsifiany testified that Gedraitis then got in his face and told him he wasn’t welcome in this country and that we would kick him out. Alsifiany characterized the encounter as hostile and said he was afraid Gedraitis would assault him.
Prosecution witness Carl Daniels of Loudonville also testified that Gedraitis “wasn’t so friendly” and that he told Alsifiany he wasn’t welcome here. Daniels and Sheriff’s Sgt. Cindy Benner also testified that Gedraitis and his companions appeared very intoxicated.
A witness for the defense, Daniel Hyatt of Loudonville, characterized the encounter as cordial.
“He walked over, held out his hand and said, “Welcome to our country’,” Hyatt testified.
Benner, however, testified that, when she questioned Hyatt after the incident, he told her he hadn’t heard Gedraitis say anything to Alsifiany.
According to court testimony, after the encounter, Alsifiany used the restaurant’s wireless phone to call 911. After Gedraitis and his companions went out to the parking lot, Alsifiany went out to get the license plate number.
Defense attorney Michael Lear of Cleveland raised the question that, if Alsifiany was in fear, why would he go out to the parking lot?
Alsifiany indicated that he wasn’t afraid at that point because Gedraitis and his friends were leaving.
At issue in the case is whether Gedraitis knowingly put Alsifiany in a position where he felt physically threatened. Jurors were told the state had to prove that element of the offense in order to convict him of menacing and ethnic intimidation.
The jury found that wasn’t the case.
Municipal Court Judge Jacob Fridline found Gedraitis guilty of a separate count of disorderly conduct in connection with the case and fined him $150.
After the verdict, Gedraitis indicated that the jury made the right decision.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I approached the gentleman and welcomed him to the country.”
Gedraitis added that Alsifiany apparently misunderstood and overreacted.
Alsifiany was not present when the verdict was announced. Reached later, he said he was saddened by it.
He said he was afraid other Middle Eastern students living in Ashland would be victimized.
“I’m afraid this man is going to do it over and over,” Alsifiany said.
Although he believes calling the police was the right action to take, Alsifiany said he was disappointed that justice wasn’t served.

Posted by info about 20 hours ago
I have encountered MANY foreign residents and have NEVER felt the need to approach them and say welcome to our country. Maybe if Mr. Gedraitis does not agree with our freedoms in this country he should find a country that would accept his crap. As for me, I rather enjoy the melting pot we call the United States of America and do not see it as my right to tell someone else they are not welcome in this country. Grow up Mr. Gedraitis, you are not the welcoming committee for Ashland County. You are one of the examples of what is wrong with this country and I am VERY glad you don’t reside in my neighborhood.

Posted by elophan10538 about 21 hours ago
Whoever appointed Gedraitis to head the Welcome Wagon, would you please withdraw your selection?!

Posted by nwasen1 about 23 hours ago
Sad to hear this verdict and that Mr. Daniels’s testimony fell on deaf ears. And that Mr. Hyatt later reversed his statement that he hadn’t heard anything!
I can only hope that Mr. Alsifiany knows that not everyone in Ashland County doesn’t welcome people from other lands.

The story behind the story

The life and Times-Gazette of Irv Oslin

Chasing the boogieman

Thursday I’ll cover an ethnic intimidation trial in Municipal Court.

We don’t cover a lot of trials there, but I thought this one warranted it. The case involves a Perrysville man who allegedly taunted an Ashland man of Middle Eastern lineage in a local restaurant. He’s charged with menacing, ethnic intimidation and disorderly conduct.

The alleged behavior evidently didn’t reach the felony level. But I felt it would be a good idea to cover this because it should inspire some dialog in the community — sorely needed dialog.

I say that in part because of an unfortunate situation last spring in which a vitriolic anti-Muslim speaker was invited to talk at our annual prayer breakfast.

The following is a Times-Gazette reader’s comment posted after I wrote a story about the speech. I’ll follow that with a copy-pasted version of the article.

Posted by lasman May 11, 2010
I would second Arrowfans opinion. I was very unhappy to see our community be subjected to this speech full of hate at the local “prayer breakfast”. I certainly hope our local ministers do not support such rhetoric and will denounce this speech as a major mistake. Rev Bouquet and his fellow clergy owe an apology to the Ashland community for bringing this man to our city.
And our mayor should reject this radical right wing religious philosophy and apologize as well.
One might ask why the mayor’s office is selling tickets to the prayer breakfast anyway??

Here’s the article:

Kamal Saleem warned that a unified Muslim front is bent on infiltrating America in its quest for world domination.

Saleem addressed a record crowd of more than 500 people Thursday morning at the annual National Day of Prayer Community Breakfast at Ashland University’s John C. Myers Convocation Center.

He portrayed himself as a former terrorist-in-training who, among other things, has done the bidding of Saddam Hussein. Saleem said that after carrying out missions in Europe and the Middle East, he was sent to America as a young man to convert as many Christians and Jews as he could to Islam.

He cautioned that Allah and God are not the same.

“When they say we worship the same God, it is not so,” Saleem said. “They are completely different deities, completely different characters.”

He warned that Islam is a government, “one nation under Allah,” “one-world order,” in which a jihad (holy war) is brewing to socialize culture and bring the non-Muslim world to its knees.

Saleem told the audience the Muslim world believes the U.S. and Israel are the great Satan and the small Satan.

“We learn from our childhood that liberty, freedom and pursuit to happiness and democracy, these are false gods and false idols and they must be subdued and must be destroyed,” Saleem said.

He explained that Muslim boys are taught at a very early age how to infiltrate the U.S. by enrolling in universities or marrying American women to obtain citizenship, “so we can turn the Constitution against you.”

Saleem also warned that Islam has a strong foothold in Europe and is becoming increasingly entrenched in American society.

“They have over 500 lobbyists working the White House,” he said.

He indicated that Muslim investors once managed to influence coverage at Fox News.

“But thank God for Godly Christian men and women that rose up and set up the finances so that Fox News is free again.” Saleem said.

He told the audience that Muslims also have won converts among America’s poor by providing food, and getting inside our prisons to convert hundreds of thousands of inmates to Islam.

Saleem said it was a car crash that brought him to Christianity and changed his outlook on life. He said his doctors demonstrated unconditional Christian love, paying his bills, giving him a place to stay and buying him a car.

He was so impressed by the relationships the doctors had with their families and their God, he began to question his faith in Allah.

It was then, he said, that he experienced a miracle, that he actually heard the voice of God of the Bible.

“I said, ‘I’ll live and die for you, my lord,’ ” Saleem told the audience. “He said, ‘Do not die for me, I died for you that you might live.’ ”

Saleem concluded his keynote address by asking all the children in the audience to stand.

“Who will tell them nothing is going to happen to you?” Saleem asked. “Who will tell them tomorrow is going to be OK and nobody’s going to take your home, nobody’s going to invade your world?”

Quoting the Book of Isaiah, he cautioned that, if we fail to sound the alarm, the blood of the nation will be on our hands.

“This is the last and final frontier, who will fight with me?” Saleem asked. “Who will stand for what’s good and pure and right?”

Following Saleem’s talk, prayers were said for national, state and local leaders in the public and private sector, those serving in the military and their families, safety forces, educators, social workers, pastors and lay workers.

The event was sponsored by the Ashland County Ministerial Association with the support of local businesses and churches.


Mass confusion

I was interviewing an elderly priest before Sunday mass.

During the interview I kept switching between taking notes in shorthand on a reporter’s pad and etching them with an awl into a block of stone.

The priest rambled  incoherently and I wondered how he would manage to get through mass.