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Journalists discuss reporting on wrongful convictions
By Emily Burns
David Krajicek was a reporter at the New York Daily News in 1989 when the Central Park jogger case grabbed the attention of all of New York. Krajicek was assigned to report on the case, and at a panel on the media’s role in reporting in wrongful convictions on Thursday, Krajicek said errors were made in the overall reporting of the case.
Since then, Krajicek has continued to report on criminal justice, and also studies media’s influence and role in wrongful convictions. This past winter, Krajicek looked into three wrongful conviction cases to see what the media’s role might have been.
“The media rarely is blamed, but the media frequently plays a role, as it did in kind of an ancillary way in the Central Park jogger case,” Krajicek said.
The cases highlighted in Krajicek’s report were the Groveland Boys case from Florida in 1949, the Walter McMillan case from Alabama in 1986, and the Kirk Bloodsworth case out of Baltimore County in 1984.
Maurice Possley, a former Chicago Tribune reporter who is now the senior researcher for The National Registry of Exonerations, also spoke about his work covering wrongful convictions. One of his main tips for reporting on wrongful convictions was to not believe everything in a police report. He said he doesn’t believe anything in the reports is true until he can personally verify it.
Possley also spoke about the personal challenges reporting on wrongful convictions can present.
“If you do this work, be prepared for a lot of disappointment, a long slog, but if you come to believe someone is innocent, it will haunt your dreams,” Possley said.
Jim Dwyer, a New York Times columnist who has also written an interactive digital book about the science of how things can go wrong in criminal cases, also spoke on the panel.
Using examples from his book to illustrate his points, Dwyer spoke primarily about the importance of looking for for errors in the conviction process.
“Looking at wrongful convictions now involves a lot of holistic thinking,” Dwyer said. “When a system fails, a lot of things go wrong.”
Dwyer said it’s important for journalists to understand what mistakes are made in the investigation and judicial process that go beyond the initially apparent mistakes.
The panelists also had suggestions for journalists who want to cover wrongful convictions.
“Journalists can do more good preventing wrongful convictions than investigating ones that already happened,” Possley said.
Dwyer came back to the Central Park jogger case to show the importance of his suggestion.
“The real untold story of wrongful convictions is the wrongful liberty that goes along with them,” Dwyer said. “And the case in point is the guy that raped the Central Park jogger – he went on to rape five more women, kill one of them, maim others.”
Emily Burns works as an investigative researcher for inewsource, a media partner of KPBS. Emily also works as an assistant producer at KPBS, the local PBS and NPR affiliate in San Diego.