Mem­o­rable ca­reer

Can’t pick just one

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Mike Master­son Mike Master­son is a long­time Ar­kan­sas jour­nal­ist. Email him at mmas­ter­son@arkansason­line.com.

Iwas asked the other day which among a ca­reer of sto­ries I con­sider most mem­o­rable. That proved more dif­fi­cult than ex­pected once I be­gan to re­flect across 46 years.

For in­stance, there was the case of Shelby Bar­ron, a black ma­son in Hot Springs, who was wrongly in­dicted on rape and rob­bery charges only to be freed after ev­i­dence prov­ing his in­no­cence was pub­lished.

Beebe’s Mil­li­cent Lynn was found float­ing in a lake near Hot Springs and the med­i­cal ex­am­iner ruled her death sui­cide un­til sto­ries raised ques­tions that led to her ex­huma­tion, where a bul­let hole was dis­cov­ered through her head.

There also was Richard Fuller, a Cum­mins in­mate whom the med­i­cal ex­am­iner ruled died from heart in­fec­tion. Sto­ries ques­tioned that find­ing. His body was ex­humed only to have a sec­ond au­topsy de­ter­mine death from man­ual stran­gu­la­tion.

Af­ter­wards, while head­ing the in­ves­tiga­tive team at the Ari­zona Repub­lic in Phoenix, came a year­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mis­treat­ment and cor­rup­tion in fed­eral In­dian pro­grams. That prompted U.S. Se­nate hear­ings and re­forms.

We dis­cov­ered the In­dian Health Ser­vice had been reg­u­larly in­ject­ing de­vel­op­men­tally dis­abled women with Depo-Provera to pre­vent preg­nancy without their knowl­edge or con­sent.

Two years later, we pub­lished an­other se­ries re­veal­ing an as­tound­ing num­ber of nurs­ing homes na­tion­wide were mis­us­ing pow­er­ful anti-psy­chotic med­i­ca­tions to con­trol the be­hav­ior of many sane res­i­dents in or­der to cut ex­penses. That also led to leg­isla­tive hear­ings and re­forms.

Young David Michel died in 1980 after suf­fer­ing a head in­jury in a shoot­ing in­ci­dent on a Lit­tle Rock park­ing lot. The med­i­cal ex­am­iner ini­tially ruled his death an ac­ci­den­tal fall. Sub­se­quent sto­ries a year later in the Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat, how­ever, showed the in­jury to the top of Michel’s head was caused by a ri­fle butt, and a wit­ness to the beat­ing emerged. The rev­e­la­tions led to an ar­rest and mur­der con­vic­tion.

I spent a year at the Demo­crat dig­ging into the 20-year-old case of Marvin Wil­liams, a 21-year-old black vet­eran who was mar­ried and em­ployed in Con­way when he died in the Faulkner County jail. Po­lice said he’d fallen on the court­house stairs. But an in­mate said he wit­nessed Wil­liams beaten to death in a cell by two white men in uni­form. The re­sult­ing sto­ries led to a spe­cial grand jury that in­dicted two for­mer Con­way of­fi­cers on mur­der charges. They were later ac­quit­ted at trial.

Ron­ald Car­den of Bigelow had been con­victed of mur­der­ing a “Jane Doe.” But ev­i­dence dis­cov­ered and pub­lished in a three-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion proved his in­no­cence and a judge freed him.

In Chicago, a se­ries of in­ves­tiga­tive sto­ries ex­plored the deaths of more than 20 black men in po­lice cus­tody in two years. Those ar­ti­cles led to ex­huma­tions and into the med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice. Ul­ti­mately, the FBI launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the Chicago Po­lice Depart­ment an­nounced sweep­ing new re­forms in the way sus­pects were treated in the city’s lock­ups. Later at the As­bury Park Press in New Jersey, an­other in­ves­tiga­tive se­ries on deaths in cus­tody prompted na­tional leg­is­la­tion that re­quired all deaths in lo­cal jails and lock­ups to be re­ported to the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Also in Chicago, I dis­cov­ered the state had been se­cretly bus­ing de­vel­op­men­tally dis­abled peo­ple from its 5,000-pa­tient fa­cil­ity at Dixon, Ill., into sleazy nurs­ing homes owned by po­lit­i­cal con­trib­u­tors in or­der to fill those homes’ Med­i­caid-re­im­bursed beds. Th­ese places were ill-equipped to han­dle such pa­tients’ unique needs. As a re­sult, many were dy­ing, in­clud­ing Donna Son­nen­berg, whose sad story led to the first crim­i­nal con­vic­tion of a Chicago nurs­ing home owner for ne­glect.

Dur­ing a sum­mer con­sult­ing at Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Times, I wrote about three men­tally ill pa­tients be­ing burned to death 17 years ear­lier in a halfway house at nearby Sea Bright. Po­lice then re­opened that cold case, which led to the ar­rest and ar­son con­vic­tion of two men 18 years later.

While writ­ing since 2001 as purely an opin­ion colum­nist, there was the shame­ful 1989 death of Mar­shall’s Janie Ward dur­ing a teen party out­side town. The med­i­cal ex­am­iner left her man­ner and cause of death as un­de­ter­mined while ac­knowl­edg­ing ad­di­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion was needed. Was it ever! A Cal­i­for­nia med­i­cal ex­am­iner came to Ar­kan­sas, ex­humed her body and de­ter­mined her death had been a homi­cide from a blow to her neck and spinal cord. A spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor was named and de­spite doc­u­mented false­hoods, ob­struc­tion, gaps and con­trived ev­i­dence, he took her politi­cized case full cir­cle for four years back to an un­de­ter­mined man­ner.

I’ve lately been in­volved in writ­ing about how our state wrong­head­edly al­lowed a hog fac­tory into the pre­cious Buf­falo Na­tional River wa­ter­shed at Mount Judea. Yet an­other book.

As you might imag­ine, pick­ing the most mem­o­rable has proven im­pos­si­ble.

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Some good news, val­ued read­ers. I will con­tinue to write three columns weekly (rather than two as pre­vi­ously an­nounced) with one change. Satur­day’s of­fer­ings will be avail­able only on­line be­gin­ning next week, while Sun­day and Tues­day will re­main in the printed ver­sion. Thanks for your sup­port and for read­ing.

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