Sunday, November 1, 2009

And We Are The Poorer For It

His name was Peter Shellem. He died a week ago, at age 49, perhaps by his own hand. For the last 23 years he was a reporter for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.

Not just any reporter. Pete Shellem was something more. While working a full-time courts beat, he did the sort of investigative journalism they used to make movies about. Not the glossy, flashy stuff that would bring down the king (though he did that, too - more in a bit). It was the grittier stuff. He freed the innocent.

There was Steven Crawford, arrested for a friend's murder when he was 14. Shellem turned up notes showing that a state police chemist had altered laboratory results to help obtain a conviction. Crawford was released after 28 years.

There was Barry Laughman. He was coerced into confessing to the murder of a distant relative. It turns out that slides containing DNA evidence from the case were in Germany. Shellem tracked them down and had the testing done. Laughman was freed after 15 years.

There was David Gladden, mentally retarded, convicted of killing and then burning the body of a 67 year old woman. Shellem's the one who discovered that she had been living next to a convicted serial killer who killed his victims the same way she was killed. And Shellem showed that the neighbor's alibi was a lie. Gladden spent 12 years in prison.

There was Patty Carbone convicted of killing the man she said was trying to rape her. Shellem demonstrated the gaps in the evidence against her and the great likelihood that she was telling the truth. She served 12 years.

There was Jay Smith sentenced to death for three sensational killings. Shellem turned up the evidence that showed the prosecutorial misconduct that overturned his convictions and that, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was so "egregious" that a retrial would violate his rights against double jeopardy. He was in prison for six years.

And then there was the time he brought down the king.
From 1994 to 1996, Shellem headed a series of stories about justice being sold for campaign contributions in the office of then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr.

The investigation resurrected a stalled federal probe. Preate, facing potential racketeering charges, eventually resigned and pleaded guilty to mail-fraud charges.
It's Preate, who now does prison reform work, who described Shellem as a "one man Innocence Project."

Perhaps it's no surprise that he wrote the chapter on wrongful convictions in Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes.Digging through records and tracking down DNA isn't glamorous. But Shellem wasn't glamorous. A fellow reporter on the Patriot-News described him this way.
Forget “The Front Page” or Woodward and Bernstein. Think Columbo without the charm.
The New York Times called him "relentless," and offered this description.

A bearded, barrel-chested man, Mr. Shellem could have been cast as a B-movie reporter. He knew the first names of many bartenders in Harrisburg. He would sit in a bar poring over court transcripts and interviewing sources.

“I don’t want to lead anyone to believe I go to bars only to get stories,” he once said, “although it would be nice if my editors did.”
The Times lifted that quote from a profile of Shellem in the American Journalism Review.

The Patriot-News is a comparatively small paper in a comparatively small place. So most of us didn't know who Pete Shellem was. As Scott Greenfield said the other day, that's a shame.
Pete Shellem, was someone worth knowing and admiring.
His name was Peter Shellem. He died a week ago, at age 49, perhaps by his own hand.

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