Letter to the editor from Post-Dispatch takes issue with recent GJR article

March 7, 2014

Dear Mr. Babcock:

We had trusted that the Gateway Journalism Review’s recent article, “Social Media Campaign by former P-D writer alleges P-D mistakes in series about mistakes” (Winter 2014), by publisher Bill Freivogel would finally offer a fairer and more complete assessment of our “Jailed by Mistake” project than your previous online efforts. Instead, we unfortunately found a disappointing lack of critical thinking, balance and independent reporting.

The most disturbing failures of the article were its absence of analysis, its lopsided “he said, she said,” nature of reporting and its author’s willingness to accept without question assertions and spin by the very public officials who oversee operations that mistakenly put innocent people in jail. They are not neutral observers.

Let us be clear just in case some of your readers may have been confused by Mr. Freivogel’s language that the newspaper “at first stood by its stories,” as if we don’t any longer. The Post-Dispatch still stands by its stories and its reporting. In fact, we remind Mr. Freivogel and your audience of our investigation’s key and indisputable findings – all of which were prominently displayed in our main article:

• Police failed to verify the identity of people they arrested, especially those who provided someone else’s name. In almost every wrongful arrest found, police and other officials overlooked a fingerprint report warning that they either had the wrong person or someone who used an alias.

• The protests of those wrongly arrested often were ignored.

• Officials failed to differentiate between the people who gave false names and the people who suffered for it.

• Authorities played down the cases where their own mistake caused a wrongful arrest.

• Officials failed to correct errors in records, setting up repeated wrongful arrests and leaving authorities unsure of who they were holding or who committed which past crimes.

We’re not sure why neither Mr. Freivogel nor the critics he cites avoids discussion of these recurring systemic problems. Instead, Mr. Freivogel’s reporting relies largely on the comments and complaints of mayoral aide Eddie Roth, who had been Mayor Francis Slay’s point man on the wrongful-arrest issue.

Mr. Freivogel also repeats an initial broadbrush claim to him by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce about errors in the story based on a “survey” of 10 percent of the cases and repeats Mr. Roth’s criticism that the Post-Dispatch has not reported her claims. But he fails to note that she made no such claim to the newspaper. Mr. Freivogel also seemingly did no research on his own, even though the reporters provided him with names and criminal case numbers of mistake examples, and the newspaper’s detailed response to the handful of cases that Joyce’s office did single out and submit in a letter to the newspaper.

Mr. Freivogel also accepted unchallenged a public official’s claims that records exist to dispute the newspaper’s results, but the newspaper, and by extension the public, “does not have the legal authority or legal access to the documents needed to verify the accuracy of the documents you are representing to the public.”

Ms. Joyce says that a newspaper project based on public law enforcement and court records is wrong, but then says that the proof of error is in law-enforcement records too secret to reveal. Moreover, in our particular project, the reporters had turned over their findings to Ms. Joyce and other officials weeks before publication, hoping for a well-informed response rather than stonewalling. And, as we have pointed out to Ms. Joyce, certain case-specific information that actually was provided to us beforehand proved to be erroneous. Moreover, the circuit attorney has turned down more recent requests to sit down and go through the cases with her or her staff.

Mr. Freivogel also passes along Ms. Joyce’s call for an audit of the newspaper’s methods and findings, without asking her why she has made no effort to correct errors or whether she would agree to submit to a similar audit. Any audit without disclosure of more records in their control would be folly.

Mr. Freivogel twice repeats Mr. Roth’s claim of our “grudging” approach to correcting errors, specifically in the case of Cecil and Cortez Cooper. We followed and continue to follow standard corrections procedures. As we have said before, we stand ready and willing to correct any factual errors in the stories, but we do need documentation and accurate evidence to do so. That’s not grudging; that’s common sense.

Moreover, the Cooper correction was made in the traditional way, running on page A2 of the newspaper. We also updated and corrected online versions of the story. But Mr. Freivogel apparently didn’t bother to verify Mr. Roth’s claim.

Speaking of the Cooper case, let’s set a few things straight. We made and acknowledged a significant error by saying Cortez Cooper had been held in jail on brother Cecil Cooper’s drug charge. Cortez’s name had appeared on arrest records because his brother had used his name before being released on pending charges. Despite a fingerprint report within 21 hours showing that the wanted man was really Cecil, an arrest warrant was issued two months later for Cortez. Police arrested and j ailed Cecil for 36 days under the name of Cortez. The real Cortez ultimately had to go to court to get his name released from the case by a judge. Our error was in not discovering that the “Cortez” officials had listed in the arrest warrant and jail records was not the real Cortez whose name was cleared by the court. To this day, it is unclear whether police and jailers at the time knew they had Cecil rather than Cortez in custody.

Unfortunately, those inaccurate law-enforcement records continue to dog Cortez, who has no arrests of his own. As our follow-up story explained, when Cortez went to police headquarters to see if his record had been fixed, police put him in handcuffs. They released him only after he produced the judge’s earlier order.

While we deserve scrutiny for the error, we note some oddness in Mr. Freivogel’s focus on the Cooper case. He describes that particular case as “cited prominently” in our original story. There is no excuse for any error wherever it is in a story, and we goofed on this specific case. But “cited prominently” seems a bit overstated. The Cooper brothers were mentioned in two paragraphs of a 145-paragraph main story (paragraphs 44 and 45) and as one example in a chart of about 100 cases.

Who was prominent in our story – and somehow never mentioned at all in the GJR article or in public officials’ criticism – was Shannon Renee McNeal, the bus driver who was featured in our story and who in 2009 was taken away from her children, arrested and jailed under a felony drug warrant intended for another woman who had died seven months earlier. Not only did our series lead off with McNeal’s tale and photo, we also included a separate sidebar on her. In fact, Mr. Freivogel’s article also failed to mention even once any of the four additional people whom we did prominently profile in our package.

Nor did Mr. Freivogel apparently talk with some of the unbiased court officials in the story who had firsthand knowledge of mistaken jailings. As far as we know, Mr. Freivogel did not speak with Judge Michael David, who freed Sylvester Williams from jail in another man’s drug-related case after noting that “even a casual review” of their photos “would clearly indicate to any person (even one of limited mental capacity) that these are not the same two people.” Nor did he apparently speak with Judge Joan Moriarity who released the 10-fmgered William E. Willis whom she determined was not the eight-fingered William L. Willis charged in a vehicle theft and burglary.

Late in the article, Mr. Roth says that the newspaper is uncomfortable “with the give-and-take of serious social media,” but Mr. Freivogel doesn’t critically examine that claim either. He fails to note that the only social media being utilized in Mr. Roth’s personal PR campaign is Mr. Roth’s private Twitter and Facebook accounts, or note that Roth’s Facebook page is largely private. Mr. Freivogel might have asked why the city’s officialdom and its official social media apparatus have been mostly silent about the story and the issues raised.

In the words of Joseph Pulitzer, Post-Dispatch reporters and editors will continue to “never tolerate injustice” and “never lack sympathy for the poor.” We have and will continue to hold officials accountable. We have and will continue to diligently investigate any claims of errors. In sum, we stand squarely behind our stories.

We are sorely disappointed in your latest reporting effort on the subject. We hope this response fills some gaps and provides important information excluded from your winter issue.

The attacks on our series have been limited to two sources directly involved in the government operations in question. The public, through social media or other elected officials, has not shared in their criticism.


Gilbert Bailon, Editor

Adam Goodman, Deputy Managing Editor

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