Editor’s note: This post has been updated.
Top editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have written a letter to the editor of the Gateway Journalism Review taking issue with a recent story about the paper’s “Jailed By Mistake” investigation.
The GJR is publishing the entire letter to provide the newspaper a full airing of its views and because the letter is an extraordinarily detailed defense of a major newspaper project.
The letter does not complain of inaccuracies, but rather the GJR’s “absence of analysis, its lopsided ‘he said, she said,’ nature of reporting.”
A legendary editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advised young reporters in the 1970s and 1980s to never overwrite their facts. Over four decades of reporting, the wisdom of that advice became apparent to this reporter – hence the inclination not to draw broad conclusions.
Nevertheless, amid the “he said, she said” claims, many important points are uncontested:
- Post-Dispatch reporters Jennifer Mann and Robert Patrick are enterprising, crusading reporters who strongly believe their stories are accurate, true and important.
- Mann and Patrick identified scores of cases where innocent people were mistakenly locked up for days because actual criminals – often relatives or friends – had used their names as aliases.
- Locking up innocent men and women is a fundamental injustice and an important story that warrants close attention from judges and prosecutors.
- Stories Mann and Patrick wrote in 2012 that disclosed the first cases of mistaken jailings also uncovered serious problems in the city’s method of identifying people unjustly imprisoned.
It also is uncontested that:
- About half of the 100 cases identified by the Post-Dispatch were 5 years old or older; only about a dozen related to the past two years, during which time police made about 60,000 arrests.
- Post-Dispatch editors refused to pay the $750 to $1,000 required to obtain computerized records that could have updated their story.
- The Post-Dispatch did not talk to most of the 100 people who the paper said were wrongly jailed. It talked to about a dozen defendants or their lawyers. One person whom the Post-Dispatch did not talk to initially, Cortez Cooper, never had been jailed.
- The paper has not reported the detailed challenges that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has mounted to several of the paper’s examples; instead, the paper has disputed the prosecutor’s findings in a letter to her.
Resolving disputed claims about individual cases is impossible because the answers depend on records closed to the Post-Dispatch and GJR. It would take an official inquiry, with access to the court records, to clarify the dimensions of the threat to the justice identified by the Post-Dispatch’s stories.
In addition to the Post-Dispatch letter, the GJR is publishing a response from the paper’s main critic, Eddie Roth, Mayor Francis Slay’s deputy chief of staff and a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer. In addition, Gateway Journalism Review is publishing a letter from prosecutor Joyce. The GJR invited Roth and Joyce to respond because of the detailed criticisms of them in the Post-Dispatch letter.
William H. Freivogel
Publisher, Gateway Journalism Review
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An earlier version of this story stated that one uncontested point about the series was that “Mann had urged her editors to pay” the $750 to $1,000 for the computerized records. Mann has since written an email to Gateway Journalism Review stating that she supported the newspaper’s decision not to pay the amount requested by the police department.