COLLEGE PARK (5/31/18) — The University of Maryland Capital News Service, in partnership with Injustice Watch and the PBS NewsHour, has published the first stories in an investigation that shows why some people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit — and how that decision affects their lives.
“Trading Away Justice” is an ongoing national investigative reporting project by students and faculty at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and journalists at professional news organizations. The first stories were aired on the NewsHour and published on the CNS and Injustice Watch websites Wednesday. CNS and its investigative bureau, new this year, pursues national reporting projects thanks to funding from the Park Foundation.
Associate Professor of Investigative Journalism Deborah Nelson, working with Chicago-based Injustice Watch, led the CNS investigative bureau of Angela Roberts, Alex Mann, Tom Hart, James Whitlow, Bryan Gallion, Laura Spitalniak, Carolina Velloso and Maria Herd in reporting on people who were wrongly arrested by members of a corrupt Baltimore Police task force. Some who were charged chose to plead guilty rather than face trial and risk a potentially lengthy prison sentence.
Mann (‘18) said he spent weeks knocking on doors, going through court records and talking to lawyers in Baltimore. One of his interviews was with Omar Burley, a then-39-year-old man who pleaded guilty to avoid a potential 30-year prison sentence after being charged with manslaughter and possession with intent to distribute heroin. In 2011, Burley accepted a 15-year sentence by pleading guilty.
He’s now among the more than 100 others who have had their convictions voided since federal investigators exposed corruption within Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force.
“It’s just unbelievable how lasting of an effect something like pleading guilty to a crime you didn’t do can have,” Mann said. “It’s still not over for Omar, and it happened many years ago. The implications may last way further down the road still.”
The CNS field producing team, led by Eleanor Merrill Distinguished Visiting Fellow Tom Bettag and including students Anna Muckerman, Julia Heimlich, Mia Salenetri and Pablo Roa, worked with PBS NewsHour correspondent John Yang to show how the opposite choices made by two brothers wrongfully convicted of the same murder in Chicago dramatically changed their lives. The students did all the shooting and all the editing.
Spent the last few months working with a great team on a crucial story about plea bargains, the criminal justice system, and the innocent people who all-too-often get left behind. It’ll air on the PBS @NewsHour tonight — tune in at 6PM EST! pic.twitter.com/Vk4Zmd7Kzb
— Pablo Roa (@_PabloRoa) May 30, 2018
Yang said he was impressed with the students’ work.
“They came to me with their research,” he said. “They gave me a binder and some notes and some pre-interviews. … Everything I needed was there.
“It’s exactly what I would be looking for from a producer here at the NewsHour, or a producer at ABC or NBC, where I worked before.”
The 20 students in Nelson’s media law course assisted on both stories by filing public records requests for court data from cities and states nationwide.
CNS data editor Sean Mussenden led students Lindsay Huth, Chris Cioffi and Jake Gluck in parsing those records; the team is building a national database of cases. Lecturer Adam Marton, co-director of the CNS Data Lab with Mussenden, worked with student Lindsey Feingold and reporters from Injustice Watch, to develop an interactive graphic that allows the audience to choose between pleading guilty or going to trial based on actual cases.
CNS audience engagement bureau director Brooke Auxier, a Merrill College Ph.D. student, developed a social media strategy for the project. Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism Sandy Banisky helped with editing.
Huth, a master’s student, said the data analysis involved examining “millions of court records to understand how plea deals and bail affected defendants in Baltimore, particularly those who were arrested by the officers now implicated in the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal.”
“That process of digging into a subject matter that I wasn’t fluent in was extremely valuable, and we came away with some pretty stunning figures about how often defendants submit guilty pleas and how many of those pleas were entered while they were held in custody,” said Huth, who plans to continue work on the project this fall.
For the piece that aired on NewsHour, Merrill College students — joined by Bettag and Yang — traveled to Chicago to meet with Juan Johnson. He and his brother, Henry, were wrongly convicted of murder and spent 11 years in prison. After the courts ordered a new trial — new evidence cast doubt on their guilt — the brothers were offered a chance to plead guilty to second-degree murder. In exchange, they wouldn’t spend another day in prison.
Henry took the deal. Juan refused. A jury found him not guilty and awarded him $21 million for wrongful imprisonment.
Muckerman was the first to meet Juan Johnson, his family and lawyer when she traveled alone to Chicago to prepare for the larger crew’s trip.
“We had a long time to work on this story,” Muckerman said. “We were very sensitive and careful about it and wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with us. I think that really paid off in the long run.”
The full crew returned weeks later to shoot b-roll and interviews with Yang. Salenetri, who had spent months researching the case and then writing and re-writing scripts, became what she called the “go-to girl for our logistics” in Chicago, keeping the production crew on schedule throughout the trip.
When the team returned, they met with Bettag and Yang to hammer out final script details.
Yang said he hadn’t worked with college students in this way before, but would do it again.
“It was just a fantastic story,” he said. “It had all the elements for a great yarn and I thought the students really brought it together.”