On Persistence: A Defense Investigator’s Manifesto

NYT newsroom 1942

Third Place: Veteran reporter Oliver Mackson turns his talents to investigations with higher stakes, and reflects on the power of dogged pursuit.

The Quotation Lead

There is an editor’s “attaboy” that stays with me through every case, just like it stayed with me for every story when I wrote for a newspaper.

The reason it was bestowed upon me is lost now, because this was nearly 25 years ago, in a newspaper office where I was only one of a slew of reporters who churned out a lot of good stories. But the words are as loud and clear as they were back then, because repeating them until they were etched into my brain helped get an innocent woman out of jail.

The editor’s name was Mark Pittman, and he said, “Persistence is next to godliness in this business.”

The Nut Graph

Persistence, more than anything else, was what sprung that woman from jail in 2011, just over a year after I took a job as an investigator at the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a county of about 300,000 people at the northern edge of the New York City commuter suburbs, halfway between New York and Albany.

The Deep Background

Our client was charged with beating her father to death. At first look, the charges seemed likely to stick. The detectives and the prosecutor who handled the case were veterans, with a combined total north of 75 years’ experience.

I was 46 years old and had more than 20 years of newspaper experience behind me, but I was green as a bag of Granny Smith apples when it came to criminal defense investigations.

Persistence is essential, but it also helps mightily to be working with an experienced lawyer, and I was operating at the direction of the most battle-tested lawyer in our office. She knew all our clients well, and she knew this client well enough to suspect she was telling the truth about her innocence. The lawyer was a fearless force of nature, and she would have made a great editor: On our “request for investigation” forms, she would frequently write a single, simple sentence: “Go find out the real story here!”

The Analysis

Besides an affinity for stories, reporters have a nearly maniacal sense of urgency, the product of deadline pressure and constantly living in fear of getting beaten to a story and seeing the story splashed across someone else’s front page or home page or blog. I had our client and a key witness on paper within a few hours of the discovery of the body. I also was fortunate to have worked at a newspaper where storytelling was encouraged and the just-the-facts inverted pyramid was frequently thrown away with great enthusiasm. At the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., the best stories were the ones that followed the King of Hearts’ instruction to Alice: “Begin at the beginning and go on ‘til you come to the end. Then stop.”

Storytelling begins with words. But words could not stand on their own on the pages of a newspaper. It wasn’t unusual for photographers at the Times Herald-Record to be out on the street ahead of the reporters, because stories needed art. Later in my career, I became comfortable going out on stories with a videographer.

So it was natural for me to call the restaurant way up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where our client and her witness had been eating dinner hours before the homicide. I needed art to illustrate the story. The restaurant sent me CDs burned from their security cameras. Our client and her witness were on those CDs, clear as day. The restaurant was five hours away from the scene of the crime.

Besides an affinity for stories, reporters have a nearly maniacal sense of urgency … I had our client and a key witness on paper within a few hours of the discovery of the body.

The apartment where the killing occurred had been thoroughly trashed before our client arrived there, discovered her father’s body, and called 911. The timeline the lawyer and I were building didn’t leave enough time for our client to drive five hours, trash the apartment, beat her father to death and then call 911 and step out to meet the police—all while leaving her clothes virtually unmarked by blood or anything else from the crime scene.

I made two trips up to the Finger Lakes to talk with our client’s main witness. She was scared, but over lunch at a Pizza Hut, (you were expecting filet mignon and tablecloths?) she signed a statement that was crucial to proving our client’s innocence. On the second trip, the five-hour drive back to Poughkeepsie took me through a classic upstate New York lake-effect snowstorm that had me fishtailing all over the Thruway. But I had a signed, notarized, exculpatory statement in my briefcase. I may be the only Thruway customer ever to wear a huge grin while fishtailing in the snow.

Back in Poughkeepsie, our client was helping me to help her, passing along tips she heard while she was in jail. Most of them led nowhere. But one tip brought me to a house out in the woods, trudging through two feet of freshly-fallen snow to knock on a woman’s door. That woman gave me the name of a man she’d heard talking about the death of our client’s father. That man’s brother was eventually charged with the murder of our client’s father, as well as another, unrelated killing.

After nearly a year in jail, our client was released. Her indictment was dismissed. She’s doing better now. She’s sent me Christmas cards, which I keep on my desk all year.

The Angle

Every case isn’t going to be like that one, of course. I’ve learned from experienced investigators and lawyers that the worst mistake you can make is to gas up your head, thinking, “I’m gonna get this person out of jail, too, and I’m gonna be a hero.”

No.

The best you can do, I’ve found, is to avoid thinking about whether the client did the crime. The best you can do is start at the beginning of the story and report it out until you reach the end.

The End

The end, most likely, is not going to be when the client walks out of jail into bright summer sunshine. The case is more likely to conclude with the client staying in a county lockup for a while, or climbing into a van headed to a state prison. A good investigator, like a good reporter, persists, without regard for what kind of ending a story or case seems likely to have. There’s always one more phone call to make, one more knock on a stranger’s door, one more night spent tearing up and re-assembling a timeline to see if something’s missing.

I wanted to see if I could report a story in a way that would stand up to the tests of proof in court, with a person’s life at stake.

When I took this job in 2010, it had nothing to do with the perilous state of the newspaper business. I had spent most of my time covering a beat that revolved around courts and crime. I had remained at the same paper long enough to write, among other things, about how the kidnapping of two young girls resonated in their adult lives, 19 years after I first wrote about the crime. I could also assemble a story from a paper trail. I wanted to see if I could report a story in a way that would stand up to the tests of proof in court, with a person’s life at stake.

It was gratifying to find that the thing I needed most to help that wrongly-accused woman, I learned 25 years ago, from a newspaperman named Mark Pittman. Repeat it in snow or rain, repeat it over the snarls of people who ain’t talkin’ to no public pretender, repeat it over the noise of doors slamming and phones hanging up: “Persistence is next to godliness in this business.”

 

About the author:

Oliver Mackson is an investigator with the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office in Poughkeepsie, NY. He defends indigent people charged with crimes, from misdemeanors to homicides. His duties include shooting still and video images of crime scenes, interviewing defendants, prepping witnesses for trial, writing trial memos, locating and debriefing witnesses and interviewing potential defendants. Before becoming an investigator, Mackson spent 20 years as a reporter and columnist, covering courts and criminal justice for the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, NY. 

 

Why we chose it:

We enjoyed the tight organization, journalistic style, and resonant message in this piece. Mackson’s story wraps around to the beginning and sticks to theme of persistence, connecting the dots of why a reporter’s skill applies well to criminal defense investigations. This is great storytelling with an illuminating case study to back it up. We also really liked his straightforward statement about what motivated him to become an investigator: “I wanted to see if I could report a story in a way that would stand up to the tests of proof in court, with a person’s life at stake.”  

Best quote:

“The best you can do, I’ve found, is to avoid thinking about whether the client did the crime. The best you can do is start at the beginning of the story and report it out until you reach the end.”

Takeaway:

“A good investigator, like a good reporter, persists, without regard for what kind of ending a story or case seems likely to have. There’s always one more phone call to make, one more knock on a stranger’s door, one more night spent tearing up and re-assembling a timeline to see if something’s missing.”