Deconstructing the DNA of a Denver Post Pulitzer Finalist
"Trashing the Truth," a four-day Denver Post feature about the destruction of DNA evidence, was the broadsheet's single finest achievement in 2007. Beginning July 22, Post staffers Miles Moffeit and Susan Greene delivered an impassioned, far-reaching plea for justice that continues to resonate. And the section related to Clarence Moses-EL, a man serving a 48-year sentence for a rape he says discarded DNA would have proved he didn't commit, inspired state senator Ken Gordon to pen legislation directing courts to order new trials for any convict who finds himself in a similar situation.
Given the articles' breadth and impact, few were surprised when Editor & Publisher magazine reported in early March that "Trashing the Truth" is a finalist for a 2008 Pulitzer Prize in the investigative category. It's competing for the honor, which will be announced on April 7, against two entries rooted in China: a New York Times multi-parter pertaining to dangerous pharmaceutical ingredients manufactured there and a Chicago Tribune package that focused on lead-painted toys and other hazardous products routinely exported to the United States.
Unexpectedly, though, complaints about the Post's offering arose shortly thereafter. First, on March 14, E&P printed a story in which Emily Achenbaum, a onetime Charlotte Observer scribe now writing for the aforementioned Tribune, argued, among other things, that Greene should have credited earlier Observer stories about Floyd Brown, a mentally challenged North Carolina man whose incarceration dominated the final part of "Truth." Then, a few days later, word surfaced that the Denver District Attorney's Office, under the leadership of Mitch Morrissey, had taken issue with parts of the Moses-EL story as early as July 24. (Westword obtained the correspondence after a request to the DA's office.) Nearly five weeks later, on August 29, Post managing editor Gary Clark finally responded to these gripes, writing Morrissey that "I see no reason to retract or correct any of our reporting." On September 7, Morrissey sent Clark a personal reply that concludes, "I still believe the story is incorrect and that the Denver Post has done a disservice to its readers."
The timing of these disclosures suggests the sort of coordinated campaign the Pulitzer powers have long tried to avoid. Unlike, say, the Oscars, the names of Pulitzer contenders aren't officially confirmed until after the winners are revealed. This information frequently leaks out in advance, but administrator Sig Gissler has done his best to plug the holes, and his efforts seem to be meeting with some success; a complete list of 2008 Pulitzer hopefuls hasn't surfaced to date. Moreover, the Pulitzer board, which decides who gets recognized, is relatively small — just eighteen individuals, including Gissler — and members routinely recuse themselves from judging material submitted by publications with which they're associated. "There's no campaigning, no lobbying," says Denver Post editor Greg Moore, who's been on board for the past four years. "It's about the purest meritocracy I've been a part of."
That's the context in which Achenbaum tried to place her concerns. She told E&P, "I would hope that journalism's biggest prize would only go to reporters who acted ethically and honestly" — a loaded statement that Greene, now a Post columnist, attacks with vigor. Although Greene read the Observer's coverage during her research process, she emphasizes that she did all of her own reporting, making several trips to North Carolina to talk to principals in the Floyd Brown matter: "We investigated the case for months and months and put it in a national framework of evidence destruction, which is something they never did." Along the way, the reporters got acquainted, exchanging e-mails and phone calls, and when Greene couldn't attend one hearing, she asked if Achenbaum, who was covering the proceeding, would join her for dinner that evening so that she could catch up on what she missed. However, Greene says she considered it more of a collegial invitation than an effort to get Achenbaum to do uncredited legwork. In the same spirit, she asked Achenbaum which official she'd contacted to learn that the state of North Carolina had spent $2.3 million keeping Brown in stir — and when Achenbaum wouldn't pass along the name, Greene says she found a source who provided another total, $2.1 million. Yet Achenbaum, in the E&P article, accuses Greene of merely wanting her to confirm the other figure.
Amid all this parry and thrust, Moore and Observer editor Rick Thames tried to resolve any controversy, and both came to what they describe as a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Thames says Moore confirmed that Greene independently verified everything she reported and assured him that the Post hadn't intended to take credit for Brown's subsequent release in follow-up stories, which noted that his attorneys filed for a remedy after "Truth" appeared. As for the contradictions between Achenbaum's and Greene's accounts about their interaction, Thames stresses that "I don't have any reason to doubt our reporter, and Greg feels the same way about Susan Greene." But in the end, he believes, "their disagreements didn't affect the story."
Differences of opinion provide the subtext for the district attorney's objections as well. When asked if he has a good relationship with Moffeit, Morrissey grumbles that the reporter once interrupted him when he was listening to crime victims testify before a House committee. Moffeit, who says this incident followed an article he co-wrote with Post staffer Kevin Simpson that the DA found problematic, recalls Morrissey "turning to me, red-faced, and saying, 'I'm not ever going to talk to you again.'" Lucky thing, then, that Greene, who took the lead on the Moses-EL segment, conducted the interview for "Truth." Nevertheless, Morrissey wound up unhappy about Greene's efforts, too — especially the assertion that the destruction of evidence collected back in 1995, before Morrissey was in charge, "violated a court order." Not so, he says. "We wrote the order, and Ms. Greene knew that," he allows. After the evidence was collected, he goes on, DA's office personnel informed Moses-EL's defense attorney, who didn't immediately pick it up, resulting in it being tossed a month later. In his view, these events prove that DA reps followed the court order, while in Greene's analysis, the decision to throw away the box, which was marked "Do Not Destroy," represents the ultimate violation.
In addition, Morrissey objected to two lines about LC Jackson, who was either a possible witness to the rape for which Moses-EL was imprisoned or the potential perpetrator; Jackson was later linked to another rape, and DNA led to his conviction. The Post story stated that "Denver police never questioned" Jackson and two other men, and one of Jackson's later rape victims speculated that her attack might have been prevented if police had quizzed him during the Moses-EL investigation. But Morrissey contends that both Jackson and one of the other men, Darnell Jackson, were, in fact, interviewed, and the former testified at trial.
Greene counters that the context of the article makes it clear that Jackson wasn't seen as a suspect, which Morrissey concedes — and managing editor Clark made the same point in his August 29 letter. "We could have been more clear by saying LC Jackson was never questioned AS A SUSPECT," he wrote, "but we think readers understood what we were saying."
None of that explains why the Post took more than a month to come to this decision. "It was certainly unusual," Morrissey says. "If we have something we're asking them to correct, I'll often get an immediate response." Instead, days dragged into weeks, and only an August 13 letter from Morrissey to Moore finally broke the logjam. According to Moore, the delay came about because of the thoroughness with which the Post looked into the subjects, but there was another factor, too: Greene had accumulated a lot of overtime and took six weeks of vacation, much of it out of town.
Moore guffaws at the notion that the Post declined to correct anything on the opus because the paper didn't want to stain its Pulitzer chances. Still, the politicking and spin that's attended the quest for the Prize threatens to obscure the series' achievement. Somewhere between the bickering about attribution and accuracy lies the "Truth."
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