Imagine being locked in jail, just because a scientist mislabeled a test tube.
It happened to Leslie Lincoln, and the Winston-Salem Journal bailed her out.
Lincoln’s story was the first part of reporter Phoebe Zerwick’s series “Crime and Science: The weight of evidence.” Besides helping Lincoln break free (she was finally released on bond after publication), Zerwick helped break down the belief that scientific evidence is infallible.
“The writer of this entry unravels the myth of that belief by investigating a couple of cases where careless lab mistakes, tainted evidence or vested interest of competing parties played in the name of science an erroneous but definitive role in deciding the cases,” said the judges.
The idea for the series surfaced from the past work of Zerwick and the paper’s metro staff. By paying attention to consistencies in the stories they covered, they discovered a subtext that needed to be brought to the forefront.
“As we pursued the previous stories, we saw two trends: The first was that investigators and prosecutors could use flawed techniques and still get guilty verdicts in court. The second was the power of scientific evidence to reveal the truth,” said the Journal in its cover letter.
“Yet as we continued to study the power of science, we found another side of it when talking about criminal investigations — that science could be misused or misapplied, and that those doing it were prone to mistakes. The Journal took the counterintuitive idea of studying death penalty cases in North Carolina in which science or scientific evidence was at fault or at problem.”
Even with the story’s inspiration already in place, bringing it to fruition by adding real faces to the piece proved problematic.
“It is never easy for a newspaper to undertake an investigation of the criminal justice system,” the Journal said. “Authorities do not like to be shown that they are wrong, especially on the most sensitive criminal cases. … In many cases, Phoebe had to track down reluctant witnesses by knocking on doors and using the art of persuasion.”
By presenting readers with the side of a story that’s normally obstructed, Zerwick’s series served as new testimony in the court of public opinion on the judicial process.
“We showed readers that science, the most persuasive evidence there is to juries, is only as accurate as the humans performing it,” said the Journal. “It’s an important lesson in a state that is sixth in the nation in executing people since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976.”