Prosecutor urges independent audit of Post-Dispatch series

Editor’s note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of GJR, is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and editor and a colleague of Roth’s and Post-Dispatch reporters and editors involved in the series.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has called upon St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon to order an “independent audit of the reporting” for the paper’s high-profile “Jailed by Mistake” investigation. She wrote in a Nov. 26 letter to Bailon that her staff had found “substantial factual errors” in the paper’s conclusion that more than 100 people had been mistakenly jailed for more than 2,000 total days.

Meanwhile, Eddie Roth, operations director for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, has summed up his social media critique of the series in a detailed Facebook post titled “P-D’s ‘Jailed by Mistake’: Its merits, errors and infamy.” The Dec. 4 posting follows half a dozen others in which Roth, a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer, says that reporters Robert Patrick and Jennifer Mann’s stories are flawed and overstated.

But other news outlets, both national and local, recently have praised the series. Slate wrote in a Dec. 2 article that “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been doing some great work lately reporting on the number of mistaken-identity arrests in that city.” And KTRS-AM morning host McGraw Milhaven interviewed Patrick for 15 minutes, saying the stories were “scary stuff” and that the Patrick had done “great work.”

Joyce told GJR in November that “a thorough look at about 10 percent of the cases in their (Post-Dispatch’s) published database” showed that the “days are overstated by approximately 550. I assume there are similar errors in the other 90 percent of their database, which would bring the days lower still.”

Joyce’s letter to Bailon cites four cases where the Post-Dispatch maintained that people were mistakenly jailed, but they either were not jailed at all or were jailed on their own charges.

Roth, in his latest post, wrote that three initial stories that Patrick and Mann had written in 2012 about people being jailed based on misidentification were well-reported, and put the problem in the proper perspective as an infrequent occurrence. But the October front-page story exaggerated the problem, he said.

The database of cases published to support the conclusion was flawed, Roth wrote, adding: “To compensate for this apparent lack of empirical support for the Post-Dispatch’s assertion of a ‘broken’ system, ‘Jailed by Mistake’ employs a raft of rhetorical deflections, logical fallacies, faulty deductions and factual errors that falsely dramatize the scope of the problem and distort official reaction to it.”

He accused his former colleagues of a “gross deviation from minimum standards of professional journalism.”

Patrick, in his Nov. 27 interview with Milhaven, acknowledged that the number of persons improperly jailed was “pretty small” compared with the number of people arrested, although he thinks that the number is larger than the 100 the paper has reported.

Patrick strongly defended the care with which the he and Mann had put together the story, and he added that city officials still would not provide the details they sought.

“We never have gotten any comprehensive response to the individual cases despite their promises to do that,” Patrick said. “And since the story has run… they have … attacked the numbers.”

He later added that “they (city officials) still have not given us a list … and short of putting on a sandwich board and walking back and forth in front of City Hall and the prosecutor’s office, I don’t think there was anything else we could do to get that list. I was practically begging.”

Patrick acknowledged that Joyce has disputed the details of the two noteworthy cases that he and Milhaven were discussing on the air. The first one involved Cortez Cooper, whom the Post-Dispatch initially had reported as having been jailed by mistake for 36 days. Milhaven started the interview by saying he “could not believe what had happened to Cortez Cooper.” Neither Milhaven nor Patrick mentioned that the Post-Dispatch had published a correction the day before the interview, in which the newspaper reported that Cortez Cooper had never been jailed.

The other case mentioned on the air (and challenged by Joyce) involved the longest questionable detention uncovered by the Post-Dispatch: It reported Antonio Arnold had served 211 days for charges against his brother. But Joyce found that Arnold served 134 days, not 211, and that the time he served was for his own probation violation.

Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor at the Post-Dispatch, released a statement Dec. 6 defending the accuracy of the stories. He wrote in an email:

“We believe the findings of our investigation were accurate. Our investigation found that people were being repeatedly arrested and jailed by mistake in St. Louis despite safeguards that could have prevented it. As we told you last week, we did run a correction regarding Cortez Cooper. It made clear that it was Cecil Cooper who was jailed under his brother’s name, Cortez. That would mean that Cecil Cooper was being prosecuted as his brother. Is that not a wrongful arrest? Moreover the arrest of Cecil as Cortez potentially gave Cortez a prison record he wouldn’t necessarily have even known he had. It wasn’t the police or prosecutor who figured out they had Cecil under the wrong name, although a Missouri Highway Patrol fingerprint report warned them from the start. It was not corrected until a judge ordered Cortez Cooper released from the charge after he and his mother went to court.

“As we have said, we stand ready and willing to correct any factual errors in our reporting if officials can provide documentation showing our reporting was wrong. While we continue to review the letter that arrived earlier this week from Jennifer Joyce and will respond to her directly, I can tell you that we have received no evidence to cause us to question the findings of our investigation.”

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Roth Dec. 4 Facebook post:

Slate praise of Post-Dispatch:

KTRS’s McGraw Milhaven’s interview with P-D’s Robert Patrick:

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