30 Years Of Criminal Justice Reporting From Robert Siegel

Nov 24, 2017
Originally published on November 27, 2017 8:27 am

Robert Siegel is retiring in January after four decades at NPR. He talks with Ari Shapiro about some of the memorable stories he has reported during his 30 years as a host of All Things Considered.

Over the years, mostly in the 1990s, Siegel reported what he considered to be an informal series on different phases of the criminal justice system. In 1994, he cruised the streets of Baltimore with an officer named Jim Higgins to provide a glimpse into life as an urban beat cop — and the tensions between police and civilians.

Two years later, Siegel traveled to Alabama to report a two-part series on that state's parole system, and focused on the story of Lewis Downs, a 73-year-old man who was up for parole after three years into a 20-year sentence for killing his neighbor. Before his conviction, Downs' criminal record consisted of one speeding ticket.

In 2007, Siegel reported on the case of Larry Peterson in New Jersey. He was wrongfully convicted of murder — based on pre-DNA-testing junk science and false testimony — and was exonerated after spending 17 years in prison.

Through these stories, Siegel says, he learned that "people who can be perfectly confident in what they have done, and who thought they were doing exactly the right thing and following the truth, can be totally wrong."

"We're flawed, we're capable of error," he says. "And those stories certainly always left with me with that lesson."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A big change is coming to our program and to NPR. It involves our next guest, who I'm not used to seeing on the opposite side of the table. Robert Siegel, welcome to the studio.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: You think you're not used to seeing me on the other side of the studio? Yeah. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You have been at NPR for four decades, and in January we are going to experience what the staff here has been referring to as Rexit (ph), which we...

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: We used that term long before it was used to describe rumors about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. We are not ready for you to retire, but we are ready to start looking back on some of the highlights of your...

SIEGEL: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Decades here.

SIEGEL: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Today we're going to pull back the curtain on some memorable stories that you did on a single theme over several decades - the criminal justice system.

SIEGEL: Yeah, over the years, Ari, mostly in the 1990s, I did what I think of or I thought of at the time as an informal series on different phases of the criminal justice system. There were quite a few projects. The first one I'm going to play a couple of bits from was from 1994, when there was a big crime bill about to be signed and it would put more police on the streets. And our producer, Margaret Low, and great recording engineer the late Bill Deputy and I went off to Baltimore to figure out, you know, what cruising with the police is like.

And we went mostly with an officer named Jim Higgins. He's now a lieutenant in the Baltimore Police Department. And the week before, an officer had been shot in the hand by a fleeing suspect, a man identified as Stephen Mercer. And frankly, the concern of all the police in this particular precinct was only about - I mean, they were obsessed with Mercer. One of their guys had been shot...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...By this young man, and they wanted to find him. And I remember passing a group of young men who were hanging out on a street corner. And Officer Higgins looked out at them, and he was convinced that they were protecting this suspect, Stephen Mercer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JIM HIGGINS: They all know exactly what happened, exactly who shot the policeman up the street, everybody right here. They probably know where he's at, too.

SIEGEL: So the police certainly didn't see the neighborhood as friendly to them.

SHAPIRO: I've heard a very similar scene on our air just this year in the same city of Baltimore.

SIEGEL: Mm-hm (ph). And Stephen Mercer was eventually turned in later by his mother, who had called up the local TV station to be there to film it because she and many in the community were convinced that if he'd simply been arrested by the police they would have shot him dead. Not a lot of trust from that side either. Higgins made several trips to an apartment complex in Baltimore where he - where there was a lot of drug dealing going on. And there was a moment when Higgins read the Riot Act to a slim black teenager who he believed was a lookout for drug dealers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HIGGINS: Why's your heart beating like that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My heart...

HIGGINS: Because you know you're about ready to get locked up, don't you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No. I ain't scared of...

HIGGINS: I know you're not scared of nothing, but your heart's about ready to come through your chest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No. All...

HIGGINS: I'm going to tell you one time. You've got a big smile on your face, and this is your opportunity for a chance. Now, look at me. Do you understand that? OK. I will guarantee you - all right? - the next time that you're sitting here - OK? - and I have reason to believe that you're up here selling drugs or you're involved in the drugs - do you understand?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

HIGGINS: You don't have to put your - you're not (unintelligible) - that you will be arrested.

SIEGEL: Back in the car, Higgins claims he had enough on the teenager to bring him in for loitering. He would prefer to just issue a warning and perhaps deter a crime.

You know, it was easy to simply see the dysfunction of this relationship in Baltimore. On the other hand, at this moment that I'll play for you, Higgins is called to a place where a teenager had passed out. It may have been a drug overdose. They don't know yet. He's revived. But his mother, his mother is just distraught.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HIGGINS: OK, you know, he's fine, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's not. Oh, no.

HIGGINS: All right, listen, ma'am. Listen. Listen. He's going to be all right, but you're not helping matters at all acting like you are, all right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh.

HIGGINS: You want something to drink?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, no, I don't drink.

SIEGEL: I always love the exchange there. Do you want something to drink? And she said, no, I don't drink.

SHAPIRO: I don't drink.

SIEGEL: I don't drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HIGGINS: Don't you, ma'am - do you - wasn't I here talking to you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No. Yes.

HIGGINS: Don't you remember me?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh-huh (ph).

HIGGINS: Well, then relax a little bit, all right? You know that I'm here to help you, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, yes. Yes.

HIGGINS: You were so, so, so, so, so, so nice that day I was up here. And you don't need to be putting yourself through this, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, God.

HIGGINS: All right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I am so nervous.

HIGGINS: Look; why are you nervous? Do you have a fan in here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, but it was nice (unintelligible).

HIGGINS: Let's put the fan on, cool you down a little bit.

SIEGEL: It's a moment of some important police work in the midst of trying to find this guy who had shot a police officer and the usual run of domestic disputes and stolen cars.

SHAPIRO: Two years after you did that real documentary on policing in Baltimore, you took on a different part of the criminal justice system. This was a two-part series about parole in Alabama.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Alabama still had parole, and Alabama had a parole hearing system that was open to recordings. So we went down to Montgomery, Ala. - myself, producer Margaret Low, recording engineer Andrea Jackson-Gewirtz. And we heard a full day of hearings of people who had committed murders and were serving time for it. One of them was a 73-year-old man who was up for parole just about three years into a 20-year sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS DOWNS: I'm Lewis Downs. I would appreciate any consideration you might give me here today. My wife is in bad health, and I need to be at home to take care of her. She is 77 years old. She's lived alone while I've been incarcerated. I think while I've been incarcerated that my record speaks for itself.

SIEGEL: Lewis Downs, until the day that he shot his neighbor, Nathan Shores (ph), his entire criminal record consisted of a speeding ticket. He'd been a church deacon. If the purpose of his incarceration was to rehabilitate himself, he didn't seem to be in much need of rehabilitation. He had been feuding with Shores, who had once mooned him. He had once taken him to court to stop him from abusing him, but then the harassment resumed in one day. The neighbor used pretty a horribly obscene epithet with Downs. Downs took a gun out of his car, walked up to him and shot him. Of course, Shores' family, including his daughter, Monica (ph), who spoke at the parole board hearing, didn't think Lewis Downs should be let out after three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MONICA SHORES: But I will quote what Lewis Downs said on the stand at trial. Why did you kill Nathan Shores? Mr. Downs said, I was a little angry. This man got a little angry and he killed somebody. I'd hate to see him mad. For somebody to stand up here and say that he is a good citizen and a Christian is sick. Lewis Downs stands up here and says that his wife needs him at home. What do you think I needed? I was 13 years old. My brother was 17. I needed my daddy at home.

SIEGEL: Ari, the feeling I had in watching a day of hearings like this in Montgomery was that this is what a trial would be like if we had no rules of evidence, if we had no procedure, if we had no restrictions on things like hearsay, if it was just all, here's what I feel should happen now.

SHAPIRO: And at the end of that series he was not granted parole.

SIEGEL: Not then. Took a couple years for him to get parole.

SHAPIRO: But ultimately he was.

SIEGEL: He ultimately was. And here you had a state, Alabama, which had several forces converging on it. Number one, mass incarceration was increasing, and the prisons were overcrowded. And the state frankly couldn't afford to build a new prison every year. Second, the victims' rights movement had gained steam. And the family of a murder victim would take part in the sentencing hearing, and then attend every parole hearing. And what parole had done for the state for all those years was permit a judge to issue a 20-year sentence. The family of the victim could walk away thinking, all right, that's a good, long time. But then it could be up to the parole board to decide whether, well, should it really be a three-year sentence instead?

SHAPIRO: This story had a lot of interesting characters, and one of them was...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...A guy who ran a work release program so people could not officially be paroled but still live at home.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Lewis Downs, at the time of his parole hearing, he'd only been convicted three years earlier. But he was driving the van at a work release barracks not far from his home and was living at home under a curfew. The victim's family actually had seen him at a store nearby, and they were outraged. The man who ran the work release facility told me what the judge in the case told me, what the sheriff in the case had told me. This is something well-known to people at least in Alabama. And they said, you know, murderers are very often your best inmates. This is Scott Sticker, the warden of the work release program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SCOTT STICKER: My experience has been people who was - that in the heat of passion took somebody's life - and they're more remorseful than most of the other inmates. And those are the ones that cause you less problems than anybody. They're more trustworthy. And they'll do what they're supposed to do.

SIEGEL: As someone else on that trip told me, they're not like your forgers or your - no, it's true.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: If you are supervising a couple hundred people who've been convicted of something, the murderers are often people who did something horrible once.

SHAPIRO: So, Robert, in your decades hosting ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you've seen some dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. And one of them is the emergence of DNA evidence, which exonerated people who were serving long prison terms for crimes that they didn't commit. And you did a series about one of these people, a man named Larry Peterson.

SIEGEL: Yeah. He had been convicted in New Jersey of murdering a woman. That was in 1989. I met him 17 years later as he was being exonerated thanks to the Innocence Project. Our producer, Julia Buckley, and I covered Peterson's story. He'd been convicted thanks to some junk science, pre-DNA science, in which some hairs found on the victim's body were said to compare with his hair - when they were subjected to DNA it turned out they were actually the victim's hair - and then also some fake testimony. But Larry Peterson himself, when he was still in Trenton State Prison, told me the case against him all those years earlier had been fake, but it'd been very impressive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LARRY PETERSON: If I was sitting on the jury, I would be inclined to convict the person also hearing...

SIEGEL: Hearing what they were saying about you.

PETERSON: Yes.

SIEGEL: And then came the testimony of his friend, Robert Elder, who had said that the morning after the murder Peterson in a car ride had described how he had abused the victim with a stick. Then Elder recanted his testimony and in a lawyer's office told me that he had lied about his friend Peterson after a three-day interrogation by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT ELDER: They were saying that you know Larry Peterson kept saying that it was you. This is the exact words that he was saying. You know, he can turn this around on you. I'm like, oh. You know, I was scared. I was like, well, let me get what - these guys what they want. You know, I'll make up a story or something. I just wanted to be free.

SIEGEL: So you never heard from Larry Peterson in the car ride about a stick.

ELDER: No. No.

SIEGEL: But you heard about it from the police.

ELDER: I heard it from the police. Yes.

SIEGEL: I still remember listening to Elder and being astonished at the consequences of his lie, the purpose of which had been for him to avoid being accused of the same crime.

SHAPIRO: The thing that strikes me with all three of these projects about policing and parole and exonerations is that this criminal justice system that determines life and death, imprisonment or freedom, is fundamentally run by fallible people.

SIEGEL: Yes. Yes. And always a good lesson, I think, in a life of journalism to bear in mind, that people who can be perfectly confident in what they have done and who thought they were doing exactly the right thing and following the truth can be totally wrong. We're flawed. We're capable of error. And those stories certainly always left me with that lesson in interviewing people on any story.

SHAPIRO: Well, Robert, we will have many more salutes to you before you leave the show.

SIEGEL: Not that - not that many, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Well, a good number. So I don't have to say goodbye right now.

SIEGEL: All right.

SHAPIRO: But it's been a pleasure looking back on these stories with you.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAFORM'S "LETTERS TO THE VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.