ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, The Marshall Project, Military Times, City Bureau, The Maine Monitor honored with SPJ Sunshine Award
Lou Harry, SPJ Manager of Publications and Awards, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Tsuyuki, SPJ Communications Coordinator, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has named five journalists and reporting teams as winners of its annual Sunshine Award.
This year’s winners are:
— Brett Murphy of ProPublica for his investigation into 911 call analysis
— Lexi Churchill, Vianna Davila, Megan Rose and Ren Larson of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune for documenting military injustice
— City Bureau for its website Documenters.org
— Samantha Hogan of The Maine Monitor for investigating jails that record attorney-client calls
— Perla Trevizo, Lomi Kriel, Andrew Rodriguez Calderón, Jolie McCullough, Keri Blakinger, James Barragán, Davis Winkie and Marilyn Thompson of The Texas Tribune, ProPublica, The Marshall Project and Military Times for their investigation on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border initiative, Operation Lone Star
A judging panel, composed of members of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee and Board of Directors, bestow these awards each year to individuals and organizations for their notable contributions to open government.
ProPublica Reporter Brett Murphy first heard about “911 call analysis” while investigating a district attorney’s office accused of a murder case in Louisiana. The technique refers to police and prosecutors using the cadence, grammar and word choice of people reporting emergencies to reveal a killer. He set out to track how far this “junk science” had embedded itself in the justice system, who was spreading it and whom it had been used against.
Murphy documented more than 100 cases in 26 states, interviewed around 120 people and sent more than 80 public records requests to local agencies. His months-long investigation produced a two-part series called “Words of Conviction.”
The first story involves Jessica Logan, a mother convicted of killing her baby.” after a detective analyzed her 911 call. After local authorities refused to release autopsy records and photos, Murphy enlisted Logan’s family to sign waivers to compel the government to release them. The records were then presented to a panel of outside pathologists, whose conclusions contradicted the coroner’s. Shortly after publication, the Supreme Court of Illinois agreed to take another look at Logan’s case.
The second story profiles Tracy Harpster, the one who started 911 call analysis, and names the institutions that embraced and enabled him. This story found that some prosecutors know that 911 call analysis is “junk science” but have snuck it into court anyways to win convictions.
Murphy’s stories have been used as educational tools and several district attorney’s offices have warned about the dangers of prosecuting crimes the wrong way. Now, some attorneys are calling for punishment of prosecutors who have used the technique while knowing it was inadmissible in court.
ProPublica and The Texas Tribune
In December 2021, Congress reached a deal to overhaul the military justice system, stripping commanders of most of their authority to prosecute sexual assaults and several other types of criminal cases. Reporters Lexi Churchill, Vianna Davila, Megan Rose and Ren Larson from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune discovered major gaps in the legislation, as well as commander’s continued influence over the military justice system.
Last summer, the U.S. Navy moved forward in prosecuting a sailor named Ryan Mays for allegedly setting ablaze the USS Bonhomme Richard in an act of arson. The incident followed two preventable, deadly collisions at sea. Rose reported on the Navy’s failures that led to the collisions and found that the case against Mays was weak. The investigation showed that Navy criminal investigators focused on Mays despite the lack of evidence and the conclusions of a different investigation that pointed to widespread failures which left the ship vulnerable to the deadly fire. Rose’s investigation revealed that Mays was being scapegoated. Mays was acquitted in September and his defense lawyers credited ProPublica’s work as part of the outcome.
During that time, Churchill, Davila and Larson found that soldiers accused of sexual assault in the Army are less than half as likely to be placed in pretrial confinement than those accused of offenses such as drug use and distribution. Commanders’ uneven treatment of soldiers became clear through the accounts of Pfc. Christian Alvarado and Pvt. Olivia Ochoa. Alvarado was accused of sexually assaulting five women before commanders placed him in confinement, while Ochoa was placed in confinement for more than three months for using drugs and mouthing off to her superiors. The reporters obtained records that showed commanders did not initially place Alvarado in confinement, even after he admitted to two of his assaults. He then went on to assault another woman.
After the investigation was published, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar called for congressional hearings to examine pretrial confinement. She said she plans to explore ways to ensure all cases across the military are held to the same standard.
City Bureau created Documenters.org in 2019 with 40 volunteer coders building 93 web scrapers to collect public meeting data across disparate government websites. The base of Documenters.org, City Scrapers, remains an open-source resource that anyone can use and contribute to.
Documenters are local Chicago residents who are trained and paid to take notes at local public meetings, spaces that harbor huge potential for government transparency, but that often receive no media coverage and produce minimal records. This program evolved from a small pilot in Chicago to an expansive network with nine cities across the country and counting.
The website has had several contributions to open government in Chicago and beyond. In Chicago, City Bureau launched the Newswire newsletter, which synthesized notes from the website, for community members, local politicians and reporters. In Detroit, Documenters produce accessible online summaries of local public meetings. In Atlanta, Documenters.org houses the only public record of the Public Safety Training Center Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee. In Minneapolis, Documenters appealed to expand streaming access and remote participation to livestreamed public meetings.
The Maine Monitor
The investigative reporting project series “Eavesdropping in Maine Jails” documented how nearly 1,000 confidential calls were recorded and shared with investigators by six county jails between June 2019 and May 2020. Samantha Hogan found that dozens of additional phone calls were recorded and listened to by law enforcement, without the knowledge or consent of defense lawyers or their clients.
Hogan made more than 100 public records requests to county sheriff's offices and jails for call data, policies, inmate handbooks and emails and conducted three dozen interviews with attorneys, defendants, sheriffs and the former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court. County sheriffs were reluctant to release data that would show how many times their jail’s phone system had illegally recorded attorney-client calls. Hogan pursued the release of this data, and The Maine Monitor made the data public online through a searchable database.
The series prompted several county sheriffs to restrict access to recordings made by the jails' phone systems to only top jail administrators. Securus Technologies, which provides inmate phone services to most Maine jails, made hundreds of attorney phone numbers private and unrecorded in the jails’ phone systems in May 2020 and again in May 2022. The company also added new warnings at the start of phone calls to notify parties if the call is private, if it will be recorded or if it can be monitored. All 14 Maine county jails that contract with Securus Technologies made these changes. Last year, prosecutors in Kennebec County dismissed a felony indictment against a man accused of domestic violence after a defense attorney said that one of the state’s investigators monitored three confidential phone calls.
The Texas Tribune, ProPublica, The Marshall Project and Military Times
The investigative team of Perla Trevizo, Lomi Kriel, Andrew Rodriguez Calderón, Jolie McCullough, Keri Blakinger, James Barragán, Davis Winkie and Marilyn Thompson from The Texas Tribune, ProPublica, The Marshall Project and Military Times investigated Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s claims about his border initiative, Operation Lone Star. Gov. Abbott said that Operation Lone Star would be a multibillion-dollar crackdown on the criminals who were “streaming across the border.” He repeatedly proclaimed the success of the initiative saying he deployed thousands of Department of Public Safety troopers and National Guard members to the border, made 11,000 criminal arrests and caught millions of lethal doses of drugs. The reporting team found this was not true.
After months of questioning from reporters, the Department of Public Safety acknowledged that it had incorporated arrests with no connection to the border and stopped counting more than 2,000 charges, including some for cockfighting, sexual assault and stalking. Of those, about 270 charges were for violent crimes, which are defined by the FBI as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
The Department of Justice launched an investigation into allegations of civil rights abuses that had come to light through reporting on Operation Lone Star. Texas Military Department improved temporary housing for soldiers after the reporters found they were sleeping in semi-truck trailers, and TMD took steps to speed up the purchase of lifesaving devices and began training troops to use them safely following the reporting about the soldier who drowned.
The winners will be honored during the President’s Awards Banquet at the SPJ23 Journalism Convention in Las Vegas, Sept. 30.
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