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