Can’t pick just one
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.
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.