We’ve seen some terrific investigative stories in recent months. Thanks to federal and state freedom of information laws, reporters from newsrooms large and small were able to dig up important information that people in power would like to keep hidden.
The following stories show how public records can be used to cover topics including public safety, national security and government spending.
“Free to Flee” by Joe Mahr of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a stunning investigation into gaps in the criminal justice system that allow hundreds of thousands of felony fugitives to evade capture. After an exhaustive review of government records, analysis of computer databases and interviews with hundreds of people, Mahr reports:
• More than a third of all felony warrants are not entered into a national database routinely checked by police across the nation.
• Few fugitives are hunted, and most states don’t even screen for criminal warrants before handing out licenses.
• When fugitives are found in other states, authorities routinely refuse to pick them up — including some wanted for violent crimes.
Read it: www.stltoday.com/mds/news/html/1252
“Nobody’s Fault” by students at Humboldt State University is a powerful investigation into the death of James Lee Peters, 25, a mentally ill and mentally disabled man who committed suicide in a California jail cell. Part of what makes this story impressive is that the students completed it despite receiving no cooperation from the mental health workers who were responsible for Peters, the jailers who incarcerated him or his family, friends and lawyers. Undaunted, the students combed through court records, district attorney files and birth, death, and autopsy reports to piece together the details of Peters’ troubling life and death.
Read it: northcoastjournal.com/051508/cov
Phil Williams of WTVF Channel 5 in Nashville, Tenn., used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Federal Aviation Administration videos and reports indicating that two kinds of wiring commonly used by some airlines are potential fire hazards. His “Unsafe to Fly?” investigation reveals that Kapton, used in MD-80s, can allow the current to jump from the insulation crack of one wire to another, causing it to burn like “sparklers on steroids.” This story had the potential to be sensationalistic, but Williams backed up his points with a stream of information and expert analysis.
Read it: www.newschannel5.com/Global/cat
“Guantanamo: Beyond the Law,” by McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington Bureau, is the most comprehensive investigation we’ve seen about what America does with suspected terrorists. Reporters Tom Lasseter and Matthew Schofield reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents, court-martial files, military manuals, and Pentagon and Department of Justice memos. They also interviewed former detainees in 11 countries, Guantanamo guards, and White House and Pentagon officials. Lasseter and Schofield conclude that the United States’ abuse of dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of innocent men at Guantanamo bases has often backfired by making the prisoners more militant and dangerous.
Read it: www.mcclatchydc.com/detainees
Lucy Morgan of the St. Petersburg Times has written a series of reports about Florida officials who are double dipping: holding state jobs while collecting state pensions. In many cases, officials have “retired” and returned to the same jobs.
Read it: www.tampabay.com/specials/2008/in
Nebraska is the only state requiring county attorneys to serve as coroners, even if they have no medical training. In an excellent series called “Fatal Flaws,” Karyn Spencer of the Omaha World-Herald examines 15 botched cases. Here’s one:
If Jeanne Feyerherm Kassebaum’s death had been treated as a homicide, authorities would have sealed off her home, left her body untouched and questioned family and friends.
Instead, emergency workers draped a blanket over her nude body, potentially ruining evidence.
Her estranged husband — a role that typically tops the suspect list — was allowed to spend the weekend at the house.
He and his relatives even cleaned.
Then an autopsy showed that Kassebaum had been strangled.
Cuming County authorities scrambled to salvage the investigation. But eight years later, no one has been arrested