Monday, September 7, 2009

How a citizen investigator shook the state's conscience

This week's New Yorker contains some devastating journalism by staff writer David Grann.

Mr. Grann's is the type of story that must be read by every student of reporting -- and by every deadwood hack who has ever tried to wring poetry from journalism.

It supports my hunch that great journalism is not about mushy platitudes or feel-good prose, but, rather, about exploring -- and with luck, exposing -- jarring truths.

Mr. Grann exposes a particularly jarring truth: How, in an arrest culminating in an execution, the state of Texas failed justice -- failed it systematically via the due processes of trial, appeal, and clemency -- thus realizing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's eerie old fear (expressed via a concurring opinion joined by Anthony Kennedy in Herrara v. Collins (1993)):
[T]he execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.
But the real reason I blog about Mr. Grann's penetrating story is Elizabeth Gilbert of Houston, Texas, the citizen investigator whom he spotlights.

Ms. Gilbert is a friend-of-the-underdog activist whose selfless effort -- even though she ends up buoyed-up by her prisoner subject -- is an example in perseverance, particularly for wannabe citizen journalists.

Check out Ms. Gilbert's tenacious compassion in the must-read story, here. Meanwhile, to Mr. Grann I say, take a bow.

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