How to cover prosecutors: Keep digging

(Meryl Kornfield/IRE)

By Meryl Kornfield

Even years after The Miami Herald reported that a 50-year-old Miami prisoner allegedly was boiled to death in a shower by corrections officers in 2012, the case was left on the shelf to gather dust.

And despite the mounting evidence reporter Julie Brown compiled about what happened to inmate Darren Rainey that day at the Dade Correctional Institution, the state attorney never filed charges against officers whom other prisoners had put at the scene of Rainey’s death.

Brown, speaking Thursday at an Investigative Reporting and Editors conference session on covering prosecutors, cited that story as an instance when reporting on government attorneys meant that investigative journalists needed to keep digging.

“I don’t think we’ve always been aggressive going after our prosecutors,” Brown told about 50 people at the Marriott Marquis Houston.

But panelist Vivian King, the chief of staff of the Harris County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office, said it’s not just a question of how the data is requested — sometimes prosecutors just don’t collect it. While staffing of the Harris County office has remained nearly the same in over a decade, the number of cases being prosecuted has surged. King said that leaves the office to decide if it should spend time prosecuting criminals or filing public records requests.

“We have the data, just not in the way you want it,” King told the group.

Brown, who has twice won the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting, detailed the cat-and-mouse games she plays with the state attorney’s office in Florida to get public records, often LinkedIn messaging IT people in the office to better understand what data they collect and where she can find it when her public records requests have been denied.

Journalists have still been able to find stories in the numbers and actions of prosecutors’ offices, including the one where King works.

This week, The Houston Chronicle published an investigation into the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, detailing how claims that the office is overworked and understaffed were exaggerated by false statistics.

Another panelist, Scott Henson of Grits For Breakfast, a website focused on Texas’ criminal justice news, called prosecutors’ offices “black holes for data.”

Aside from case dismissal rates, few metrics can account for the success of these elected attorneys, Henson said.

Because many cases don’t go to trial — in 2012,The New York Times estimated 97% of federal cases and 94% of state cases did not go to trial — details about prosecutorial strategy aren’t revealed.

King said prosecutors are put in “an awkward spot” when they can’t answer reporters’ questions about cases that don’t go to trial.

Brown and Henson provided suggestions  for covering prosecutors, including:

  • Keeping track of lawsuits filed against prosecutors.
  • Following the office’s warrants and charging.>
  • Persisting to make record requests despite being denied.
  • Understanding the prosecutorial discretion of the office related to other prosecutors.