This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: USA Today reports that on Monday, the Supreme Court – in two unsigned decisions without noted dissents – ruled in favor of police officers accused of using excessive force. The rulings, the New York Timesreports, were a signal that the court “continues to support the doctrine of qualified immunity, which can shield police misconduct from lawsuits seeking damages.” A piece from Slate examines Monday’s rulings in the larger context of this moment in police reform. The court’s decisions – on the heels of a recent announcement that the Senate had failed to reach an agreement on long-awaited federal police reform – show, the piece argues, that it’s now “now fully up to the states to protect Americans from the horrific consequences of qualified immunity.” A piece from the New Republic highlights one portentous local race: an upcoming sheriff election in Erie County, New York. Over the last 15 years, during the tenure of incumbent sheriff Timothy B. Howard, 31 people have died in Erie County jails, most as a result of suicide or medical neglect. A victory for Kim Beaty, the Democratic candidate in the race for Howard’s successor, would not only bring Erie County its first Black and first woman sheriff – it may also be the “last, best hope of ensuring better treatment for those who wind up in county jails.” And the Trace reports from Baltimore, where – as in much of the country – the “defund” movement that picked up steam in the wake of last summer’s protests is now at a crossroads. But Baltimore activists are embracing a “longer play” – pushing for gradual movement on the city budget and slowly building residents’ support – that they hope can prove a model for future efforts at reform.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: Several stories this week focus on the ongoing crisis at New York City’s Rikers Island jail. The New York Times reports that on Monday, Anthony Scott – a Harlem man who was left critically injured last week after trying to hang himself in custody of the NYC Department of Correction – was taken off life support, becoming the 14th person to die in city custody this year – the jail system’s deadliest year since at least 2016. Gothamist reports that last Friday, 64-year-old Victor Mercado also died in city custody, of complications from COVID-19 – the same day a Bronx judge granted him an emergency conditional release. Most of the deaths have occurred at Rikers Island, where converging crises of overcrowding and understaffing, fed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have produced a climate of “sheer lawlessness.” A piece from the Guardian dives deeper into the Rikers crisis, detailing the “chaotic and deadly” conditions inside the jail; while a piece from Truthout highlights the role of Rikers’ forceful guard union.
In complex crime storytelling: A story from Mother Jones centers on a “Jim Crow-era murder” and one family’s decades-long fight for justice. In 1955, 16-year-old John Reese was killed when two men shot through the windows of an East Texas cafe. Reese was Black; his killers, both white, later said they’d fired out of anger that local politicians had agreed to fund a new Black school. But the gunmen never spent a day in prison; despite plenty of evidence that he’d died in a racist murder, Reese’s killing was ruled an accident. Then, in 2009, his case was picked up by researchers with Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, who reexamine and investigate racialized killings between 1930 and 1970, during the Jim Crow era and its immediate aftermath. The project aims to correct often-inaccurate official records of these killings, and to bring some long-awaited closure to surviving family members. “It’s really not enough to say, ‘Those were horrible days,’ and let them pass,” says CRRJ’s founding director, Margaret Burnham. “The details matter. These stories are important, and to the extent these people are still around, their stories deserve to be told.” And a piece from USA Today recounts the story of the “Jersey Four.” The Jersey Four – Rayshawn Brown, Jarmaine Grant, Keshon Moore, and Danny Reyes – first met, in the early ‘90s, as teammates: all four played college basketball, and shared dreams of going professional. A trip from New York to spring tryouts at North Carolina Central University seemed like a solid first step. But they didn’t get far: on the night of April 23, 1998, the four were stopped by New Jersey state troopers as they drove southward on the Jersey Turnpike. Without warning, the officers fired on their car, grievously injuring three out of the four. Two of the troopers were later indicted for attempted murder, but the charges were ultimately dropped. 23 years later, the victims – survivors, as they call themselves – are still trying to move forward.
In culture/true crime: Houston Public Media highlights “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” a new Investigation Discovery documentary about Texas exoneree Michael Morton. Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife, Christine, before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011. The documentary recounts Morton’s story and that of the lawyer, John Raley, who fought to set him free. The New Yorker reports from the Appalachian Trail, where amateur sleuths have speculated that Brian Laundrie – the fugitive and person of interest in the killing of his fiancée, Gabby Petito – may be hiding out – bad news for the archetypical long-distance hiker: “skinny, pale, bald, and bearded.” And Mashable interviews Celisia Stanton, the prison abolitionist turned first-time podcaster behind Truer Crime. A longtime fan – and critic – of the genre, Stanton was inspired to start her own true-crime podcast after the murder of George Floyd, and the racial justice reckonings that followed. With Truer Crime, Stanton hopes to bring nuance, context, and an abolitionist lens to a heavily “white-focused” genre: “Never was there discussion,” she says, “about the ways in which the systems of society create the conditions for these crimes to happen.”