After the U.S. Supreme Court told states that juveniles who had been given mandatory life without parole sentences should get the chance to argue for their release, national writers Sharon Cohen and Adam Geller wanted to know how judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards were dealing with the inmates.Aided by reporters in all 50 states, their exhaustive investigation showed for the first time that the high court’s mandate in 2016 to give inmates a chance at freedom is being applied inconsistently, varying from state to state, even county to county, “in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.”Very soon into their reporting, Cohen and Geller hit roadblocks.Advocacy groups were unable to provide a state-by-state breakdown of the number of lifers and often declined to identify any lifers by name, fearing they would jeopardize their chances at resentencing and release. As Cohen and Geller began scouring court and prison records and reviewing decades-old trial transcripts, project editors Pauline Arrillaga and Chris Sullivan enlisted reporters in all 50 states to help fill in the gaps.
The result was a one-of-a-kind inventory of the numbers of juvenile lifers in each state, recent legislative action and a glimpse at whether states were taking steps to address these cases – or pushing back. Producer Maureen Linke turned it into a searchable interactive that was featured on the APNews.com hub.Baltimore reporter Juliet Linderman joined the team to produce a piece examining how the ruling has affected far more than those inmates serving mandatory sentences, expanding on early reporting she’d done for her state story.Working closely with Cohen and Geller, photo editor Patrick Sison gathered up before-and-after photos of the inmates, juxtaposing youthful mugshots with ones from more recent years that helped show how the one-time juvenile offenders have aged in prison. They were coupled with striking photos of former juvenile offenders by Matt Rourke in Philadelphia and Paul Sancya and Carlos Osorio in Detroit.Video journalist Mike Householder in Detroit produced a video piece that included an emotional courtroom hearing for a juvenile offender and interviews in Pennsylvania with the granddaughters of a man killed by a juvenile lifer and a doctor who’s an expert on the teen brain. He also included an interview gathered by video journalist Allen Breed in North Carolina that introduced viewers to an inmate still hoping to make a case for release.Working with Cohen, Geller and science writer Malcolm Ritter, digital storytelling editor Raghu Vadarevu collaborated with animators Peter Hamlin, Marshall Ritzel and Darrell Allen to pull together an animation to explain the development of the teenage brain and the impact on decision-making – based on research that played a role in the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Vadarevu and West digital producer Samantha Shotzbarger worked with Geller to combine his narrative storytelling skills with a new format: audio. The result was a 16-minute audio extra focusing on Earl Rice Jr. who had been recently released.Vadarevu, Shotzbarger and Nerve Center producer Trenton Daniel for the first time pulled together a promo hub on APNews.com, shared with readers before the package launch via tweets.“Great reporting that breaks news, strong writing, wonderful photos and video, and an immersive presentation that provides by far the best hub experience of the AP News era,” Managing Editor Brian Carovillano said. “This is clearly among the best journalism AP has done this year, and it stands out as something really distinctive and special in this summer of White House news.”Director of Global Enterprise Marjorie Miller called the project “an important public service.”The series won widespread attention, garnering front-page play in dozens of newspapers. Reporters nationwide also saw front-page play of their sidebars in many of the biggest papers in their states.The package was retweeted by The Marshall Project and ProPublica, and received coverage by NPR stations across the nation. Geller was interviewed on “All Things Considered.” PRI’s “The Takeaway” hosted a two-day report on the series, featuring both Cohen and Geller as well as recently released offender Earl Rice.Advocacy groups are using the series to call for more Supreme Court action to prevent what some call “geographic justice.”For shining a light on a justice system that’s both slow and inconsistent in giving one-time juvenile offenders a chance to make a case for their release, Cohen and Geller win this week’s Beat of the Week prize.
The reporting is available here.