The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a correction this week to its “Jailed by Mistake” series, acknowledging that one man it had reported as jailed by mistake had not been behind bars.
The correction was included in a Page 1 story by Robert Patrick under the headline, “Man battles to free himself from St. Louis police paperwork glitch.”
The story reported that Cortez Cooper – mentioned in the original series as being jailed by mistake for 36 days – had gone to police headquarters on Monday to see if his “faulty criminal record was fixed.”
When police checked his record, they found there was a warrant in St. Louis County for his brother, Cecil, who sometimes uses Cortez’s name as an alias. St. Louis police handcuffed Cortez until his mother told them Cortez had a court paper proving he was not his brother.
Patrick’s story said the incident was “another episode in the record-keeping system that contributes to a wrongful arrest problem, outlined in a Post-Dispatch investigation published Oct. 27. The paper reported that at least 100 people had spent more than 2,000 days behind bars on wrongful arrests, based on available records over about five years.”
Patrick said in a telephone interview Wednesday that a correction was warranted because Cortez and his mother say he was never in jail, contrary to the original series. But Patrick said the continued confusion on Monday again illustrated problems with the system.
Patrick and Jennifer Mann, co-author of the series, strongly defended the overall conclusions of their series during the telephone interview. Even without including Cortez Cooper, the original finding of the series stands, they said. More than 100 people have spent in excess of 2,000 days in jail on wrongful arrests.
Patrick and Mann said they had been extremely conservative in their investigation and suspected the number of people in jail under false identities was considerably higher than was their estimate. If the city had provided the information it sought, they would have been able to better verify their numbers, they said.
Mann said the city had “stonewalled” the paper in failing to turn over documents requested under the Sunshine law and in charging prohibitively high prices for other documents. Now city officials are contesting some of the examples in the series, but the city has failed to provide enough documentation for the paper to conclusively determine whether additional parts of its original story need to be corrected, she said.
Eddie Roth, operations director for Mayor Francis Slay, and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce have maintained that the series has mistakes and exaggerations. Joyce says her office studied 10 percent of the cases in the Post-Dispatch and found that days served are overstated by approximately 550. Joyce has sent a letter to Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon identifying cases where she thinks the paper made mistakes. Mann and Patrick said they had not yet seen the letter.
Roth first brought the newspaper’s attention to the Cortez Cooper case on Oct. 29, suggesting the circuit attorney’s office had found he had not served time in jail as the original story stated.
Patrick said in the interview that all of the court records had indicated Cortez Cooper had been in jail. He had not been able to locate Cortez to interview him before the original story ran, only tracking down his mother about 10 days ago. When Patrick finally interviewed Cortez, the young man told him he never had been in jail.
Patrick accompanied Cortez and his mother to the police station on Monday. Asked whose idea it had been to go to police headquarters, Patrick said, “I don’t know.” Mann added that the reporters had not tried “to set this up.”
But Patrick and Mann said the actions of the police in handcuffing Cortez illustrated that problems with the system persist.
In its Corrections and Clarifications column published the same day as Patrick’s story, there is an entry stating: “Cortez Cooper was wrongly accused but not jailed on a drug case against his brother. A story and graphic in the main news section Oct. 27 misstated his incarceration. His brother, Cecil, was jailed for 36 days on a warrant in Cortez’s name. A judge dismissed the case against Cortez after he and his mother brought the mistake to the court’s attention.”
Roth, in an email to Bailon, called the correction “confusing and incomplete.” He said it “perpetuates the stories’ improper attempt to shift the burden of proof” to city officials to knock down the paper’s claims, rather than the paper substantiating them in the first place before publication.
Police Chief Sam Dotson joined the criticism in a blog post, “What the Post-Dispatch didn’t tell you.” He maintained that Patrick’s Monday story did not include his version of events at the police station. The chief said Cortez inexplicably had not shown police the court order proving his identity until after he had been handcuffed and his mother had brought it to their attention. Cortez was then immediately released, Dotson said. The entire episode took just 20 minutes, according to the chief.
Patrick said in the interview that the Dotson statement had not been included in the story because it came into the paper after 9 p.m., more than five hours after the event, and didn’t add anything to the story. “It wasn’t telling a different story from what we told in the paper,” said Patrick.
Bailon defended the correction and story in a statement to GJR on Wednesday. He wrote: “The correction that ran on A2 in print was attached to the original package online and the story text in the folo story were straightforward. It makes it clear that Cecil Cooper was jailed under his brother’s name, Cortez, who has no outstanding criminal charges. That was made clear to readers. A man wanted on charges was held by police under the wrong name. Fingerprints are supposed (to) bear out their correct identities.”
Mann said Roth’s charge about having switched the burden of proof to city officials “couldn’t be further from the truth. We reported what the official records said….We poured over these files and checked and double checked and triple checked.”
Post-Dispatch story with correction
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.