This series, the product of months of reporting, reveals deep trouble at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. “Agents’ Secrets” shows an agency in line with prosecutors’ wishes. Agents and analysts ignore or twist the truth and push the bounds of science.
A preview of Agents’ Secrets: Junk Science, Tainted Testimony at the SBI, The News & Observer’s four-part investigative series exposing systemic problems in North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation. This trailer promoted the series on newsobserver.com a week prior to publication in print and online.
Footage: Travis Long, Shawn Rocco, pool, SBI
Stills: Shawn Rocco, provided
Editing: Travis Long, Shawn Rocco.
Music: “34 Ghosts IV,” Nine Inch Nails (Creative Commons)
A Confession Doesn’t Add Up
Floyd Brown, a developmentally disabled man, spent 14 years locked up in a mental hospital because of a murder confession that has been widely discredited. SBI agent Mark Isley testified that he took down Brown’s confession word for word. But those who knew him or examined him said the document couldn’t have come from him.
Footage, editing: Travis Long, Shawn Rocco
Interviews, narration: Mandy Locke
Stills: Harry Lynch
Additional footage: Dr. Moira Artigues
Bloodstain analysis: ‘A bunch of malarkey’
An SBI bloodstain pattern experiment draws criticism and catcalls.
Footage: Travis Long, SBI.
Interview, script, narration: Joseph Neff.
Editing: Travis Long
A Truth Seeps Out at Last
Jailed for 18 years, Greg Taylor’s exoneration calls into question forensic practices at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
Footage and editing: Travis Long, Shawn Rocco.
Interviews, narration: Mandy Locke.
Stills: Shawn Rocco, Chuck Liddy, SBI.
Read the entire series at: http://www.newsobserver.com/agents/
Update – August 27, 2010: Scathing SBI audit says 230 cases tainted by shoddy investigations:
An audit commissioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper revealed that the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or distorted evidence in more than 200 cases at the expense of potentially innocent men and women.
Update – January 30, 2011 – CNN airs “CNN Presents: Rogue Justcice”: An hour-long documentary based on the The News & Observer’s investigative series “Agents’ Secrets: Junk Science, Tainted Testimony at the SBI.” The documentary included a significant amount of News & Observer video footage and photographs as well as interviews with reporters Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff.
Update – February 9, 2011 – “Agents’ Secrets'” series receives McClatchy President’s Award:
“Raleigh’s coverage of the misdeeds of the state Bureau of Investigation uncovered a startling story: The agency responsible for many prosecution cases couldn’t be trusted. Reporters Joseph Neff and Mandy Locke worked for months to review documents, study practices and analyze questionable cases. Their reporting led to sweeping changes in the state agency, and spawned a CNN documentary that ran nationally this month. The project comes with an eloquent online website that includes stories, graphics and photos and tracks the developing coverage of this story. “Wow,” one judge wrote across the top of the entry. The judges panel added, “The treatment of this subject turned into a conversation all across town, which meant the reforms and reaction developed a real momentum. With the excellent reporting and strong online treatment, the series provides a how-to on making the most of an important, ongoing investigative project.”
Update – February 18, 2011: “Agents’ Secrets” receives Public Service award: The News & Observer was awarded the N.C. Press Association’s Public Service award for the investigative series “Agents’ Secrets.” The series also received first place recognition for best video, best multimedia project and investigative reporting.
Related Post -February 17, 2010: Innocence Panel Sets Greg Taylor Free
Vernetta Cockerham’s husband made good on threats to kill her family when he stabbed to death her teenage daughter Candice in 2002. Cockerham had begged police to lock him up. In a lawsuit she’s asking them to pay for failing to protect her.
Footage and editing: Travis Long
Interviews: Mandy Locke
Stills: Travis Long, provided
Music: “The Persistence of Loss” Nine Inch Nails, ASCAP
Chasing ghosts is one of the hardest thing we do as a visual storytellers.
Problem: Tell the story of a crime that happened five and a half years ago.
Solution: Find every scrap of visual you can including family photos, documents, medical sketches, a 72 dpi booking mug, deposition video and lots of photo and video details. Put it all together with a compelling interview and edit the hell out of it.
On July 4, 2002, Vernetta Cockerham-Ellerbee filed for a restraining order against her husband Richard Ellerbee after he beat her with a baseball bat and attempted to smother her with a pillow. Vernetta’s home became a war zone that year. Her husband beat her and for months promised to kill her and her three children. Ellerbee dug graves for their bodies in a rutted field that stretched between her home and the Jonesville, NC police station. She begged officers to lock him up.
On November 18, she notified Jonesville police several times throughout the day that she was being stalked by Richard. Vernetta says that while talking to officers, Richard drove by. The officers went after Richard and she was certain he had been arrested.
The following day while she ran errands, Richard broke into their home and brutally murdered her 17-year-old daughter Candice. Then he laid in wait and attacked Vernetta and left her for dead.
Because law enforcement is granted such broad immunity from civil liability, Vernetta had to fight for the right to sue Jonesville police. The state Court of Appeals granted her permission in 2006, saying officers made a specific promise to her and her children, failed to deliver and didn’t warn her they had not arrested the threat. Her civil case is pending.
I accompanied writer Mandy Locke to Vernetta’s apartment in Winston-Salem where she lives with her two young sons. Mandy had already conducted her print interview days earlier and spent a little more than an hour interviewing her while I shot video.
Mandy did the interview for the Dwayne Dail piece that was published last month. She has superb interview skills and knows exactly when to let the subject talk and when to redirect. This makes my job so much easier.
As I listened to Vernetta recount the day she was attacked and how she learned of her daughter’s death, it was all I could do to keep from crying.
She took us to nearby Jonesville (population 2000) where she showed us the home where the murder took place and the field where Richard dug the graves. It was a foggy evening and the light was fading. I had about 20 minutes on the ground before the light disappeared.
A year ago I might have spent a few days or more shooting photos for a Sunday page one story. I probably spent a combined 30 minutes shooting stills for this story. Many of those stills were details or “noun” photos to support my video. I find myself using my still camera for static details because they offer more control and depth of field than my HD video camera.
Once I captured the interview, I made notes of all the things I wanted for B-roll. Then I waited for another overcast day to return to Jonesville to finish shooting. A few days later the weather cooperated and I drove the 300 mile round trip from Raleigh to Jonesville.
Vernetta claims to have been harrassed by town officials after she filed suit against the police. Everything I needed to shoot was within sight of the police department and I worried that they may give me hard time. So I put on a bright orange traffic vest and went about my business. From a distance I looked like a surveyor with my tripod. No one paid any attention.
I’ve always admired the documentary “The Thin Blue Line“ by Errol Morris. It’s one of my favorite “ghost stories.” Many have compared “The Thin Blue Line” with Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” The movie proves that documentary film can tell the tale of a crime long after it has been committed. I’m certainly no Errol Morris, but I do want to pay my respect to the inspiration.
Update – Tuesday, June 30, 2009: A settlement was reached between Vaernetta Cockerham and the Jonesville Police.
Update – August 2009: O, The Oprah Magazine covers Vernetta Cockerham’s story with photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
Mental-health reform has been a bust for North Carolina taxpayers and patients. Millions of dollars have been wasted and services have suffered.
Footage: Travis Long
Interviews: Juli Leonard, Travis Long and Michael Biesecker
Still photography: Juli Leonard
Editing: Travis Long and Juli Leonard
Music: “Prelude” The Flashbulb, licensed by Vapor.
Update – April 5, 2008: Governor Easley responds to N&O investigation, fires public information officer.
Governor Mike Easley’s administration fired Debbie Crane, the state official who handled News & Observer reporters’ requests for public information as they worked on a series about the state’s mental health system reform. Watch an interview with Crane and excerpts from Gov. Mike Easley’s press conference in response to the paper’s investigation into mental health reform.
Footage: Travis Long, Scott Sharpe
Editing: Travis Long
Update - April 5, 2008: PIO alleges Gov. advised staff too delete public record emails.
Debbie Crane, the former N.C. Department of Health and Human Service’s public affairs director who was fired in March 2008, alleges that Gov. Mike Easley’s press office has a policy to delete email correspondence to his office. Her contention, if true, shows a violation of the state’s public records law.
Footage: Travis Long, Scott Sharpe
Editing: Travis Long
A forgotten child’s nightgown pushed Dwayne Dail from wrong man to free man. Convicted of rape, he lost half his life in prison before DNA evidence found on the gown proved his innocence. Now free, Dail looks back and tries to make sense of a life unbarred.
Footage: Shawn Rocco, Travis Long
Interviews: Mandy Locke:
Stills: Shawn Rocco
Editing: Travis Long, Shawn Rocco
Additional editing: Rob Roberts
December 9, 2007: In late August, Dwayne Dail , 39, was exonerated after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. A 12-year-old Goldsboro girl pointed to him as the man who raped her; a jury believed her. Dail spent half his life behind bars until the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence uncovered evidence containing DNA that authorities thought had been destroyed after Dail’s trial.
Colleague Shawn Rocco and I got a call from a picture editor late in the evening Aug. 27, 2007. We were to drive to Goldsboro, NC the next morning where Dail was expected to be exonerated. Shawn shot stills and I shot video. Our reports had to be filed to newsobserver.com from the courthouse. This is the video I cut in the courthouse lobby:
Shawn stuck with Dail while all the other photographers and news crews packed it in to file their stories. That’s him in the last few seconds of my news video running ahead of Dail while the rest of the photographers stopped at the curb. It payed off, as Shawn reporter Mandy Locke were able to develop a rapport with Dail and his family that allowed them to continue with this story.
A few weeks ago Shawn and Mandy traveled to Lehigh Acres, Fla to find out how Dail was coping with life out of prison. Shawn was in Florida for 2 1/2 days. He was responsible for shooting photos that would carry a Sunday page one display as well as video. This was Shawn’s first foray into video (aside from a few daily breaking news videos he shot on a Canon S3). Before he left, I showed him how to hook a lav up to a Canon HV20 and off he went.
Shawn came back with amazing interview, b-roll and photos. After Shawn struggled in vain with iMovie, we decided to team up and hit the studio last Sunday. We started by writing sound bytes onto stickies that we organized into clusters on the window and door of the studio.
On Monday, multimedia producer and all-around ninja, Rob Roberts, envisioned a DVD-like piece that featured a main video with “extras” including video interview out takes, audio, photo galleries, and documents. The main video would be prominent and if folks were compelled after watching it, they could explore all the additional content Shawn and Mandy gathered. We would also debut FULL SCREEN video. It was going to take everything we had to get it live by Sunday.
Rob farmed out parts of the project while Shawn and I cut the main video. Rob went to work programming the shell based on the back end of our State Fair multimedia. We were aiming for a 4 to 5 minute video with three distinct parts: Prison, Exoneration and New Life. We used Shawn’s new footage as well as the news video I shot in August. Shawn drove out to Nash Correctional facility on Monday to shoot some b-roll and get sound to fill out the Prison section.
By Thursday Shawn and I had the main video roughed out. We were asked to show it during the 4 p.m. editors’ meeting. They liked what they saw (maybe too much). We were asked to get it on the site by noon on Friday to promote the Sunday story. Panic set in. Shawn and I were at least another day from having the video ready to go live and the multimedia components weren’t ready either. We came to a compromise. We would put up a trailer by noon Friday. I whipped up a few text slides Friday morning at the breakfast table and tacked them on the end of the first 30 seconds of our rough cut.
Friday night, Rob tightened the screws, color corrected and put a sweet encode brew on the video. In the end I think we came up with something that served our readers pretty well. Now if I could just catch up on sleep.
Update – Frebruary 13, 2008: Dail: Life Unbarred featured in PDN magazine: PDN Magazine wrote a little diddy in this month’s issue on “Dail: Life unbarred.” I think Shawn got more photos in the magazine than he got in the paper. Too bad the article has us working for the Charlotte News & Observer. But hey, we’ll take what we can get. Click to see the print article:
Update – April 9, 2008 “Dail: Life Unbarred” named offical honoree in 12th Annual Webby Awards for Public Service and Activism.
Footage: Travis Long, Ethan Hyman
Interviews: Juli Leonard
Stills: Takaaki Iwabu, Juli Leonard,
Editing: Travis Long
Night projections: Travis Long, Rob Roberts
Music: “QKThr” Aphex Twin, licensed by Chrysalis
On June 23, 2007, News & Observer photojournalists Travis Long, Takaaki Iwabu, Ethan Hyman, and Juli Leonard visited the Eno Quarry in Durham to shoot video and still images for an in-house project on the quarry. The group had envisioned a light piece on swimming hole culture.
A few weeks later, they were contacted by the family of 18-year-old Ian Creath who had drowned in the quarry July 9, 2007. The family sought the last known video and photographs of him.
In the process of gathering photographs and video of Ian the group got to know his mother, Shawn Bailey. Her strong spirit and thoughtful remembrance of her son inspired this project.
When the N&O started its push towards video in June of 2007 our then director of multimedia, Robert Miller, broke the staff into five teams. We were to go make a video and the only rule was that the video had to involve water. Our team (Takaaki Iwabu, Ethan Hyman, Juli Leonard and myself) chose to pursue a video on the Eno Quarry swimming hole in Durham.
We lugged a boat-load of gear a mile into the woods and spent the whole day immersed in multimedia bliss. A few weeks after our visit, 18-year-old Ian Creath tragically drowned at the quarry. Ian’s mother, Shawn Bailey, mentioned to the reporter who wrote the news story that Ian’s brother, Lance, remembered seeing N&O photographers at the quarry a few weeks prior to Ian’s death. I went through two hours of tape and didn’t find any footage of him because we didn’t interview Ian. I had no context.
About a month later, I was learning Final Cut Pro while using the quarry video as source material for practice. I was in the studio capturing video when I heard someone off camera call out Ian’s name. I logged on myspace and found Ian’s profile and was able to determine that we indeed had video of him. Takaaki went through all his photos from the day and found photographs of him as well.
Juli and I went to Ian’s home to give his mother, Shawn, the raw video and prints. We talked with her for more than an hour She said when she visited the quarry she could not be sad and that it was a peaceful place that was special to Ian. We were struck by Shawn’s candor and thoughtful remembrance of her son.
We pitched a story. Then we followed up with a formal audio interview and two more visits to the quarry (one visit with Shawn and another with a gasoline generator to do some night projections with our original footage of Ian).
We were able to get veteran writer Martha Quillin onboard and the story was slated as a Sunday features display.
In the end, we came out with a 50 inch feature story, some nicely displayed photos and the video online.
It truly was a collaborative effort that developed over weeks and weeks. Ethan’s original footage of Ian, Takaaki and Juli’s still photographs, Juli’s thoughtful audio interview and a solid week worth of video editing resulted in a piece I’m pretty darn proud to be associated with.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of this whole project was this letter to the editor from Shawn:
I commend your staff for the wonderful job on “Ian’s Peace.” Martha Quillin, Travis Long, and Juli Leonard were spectacular during the process of creating the tribute to my son. Not only was the project of highest quality, but they truly “entered in” –as much concerned for my personal journey of grief as they were interested in procuring a story.
The article and video are treasured gifts, but equally cherished will be the memory of these three compassionate people who have been an integral facet to my healing. When they accompanied me to the quarry, they just let me be what I needed to be—let the words come, but also allowed the silence. It felt like a sacred time.
I realize there were others who invested in the birth of this gift to my family and me. I sincerely offer my gratitude to those individuals as well.
Some aspects of humanity disenchanted Ian. Yet, there are so many stories of how he used this frustration as a catalyst to make a difference. In his laid back, brilliant way, he pointed us to a better moment, or simply made us smile. May we all be so deliberately invested.
Update – April 9, 2008: “Ian’s” Peace” named as official honoree for Documentary Individual Episode in the 12th Annual Webby Awards.
Cherokee, or the Qualla Boundary (more than 56,000 acres held in trust by the federal government), is home to about 9,000 of the 13,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains and bordering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Cherokee is surrounded by some of North Carolina’s most breathtaking scenery.
During the 1940s and ’50s, seasonal tourism overtook logging as the mainstay of Cherokee’s economy. Indian iconography and relics of 1950s and ’60s tourism coexist with chain hotels and fast-food restaurants. In 1997 the tribe opened the glitzy, upscale Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, one of the largest employers in North Carolina west of Charlotte. Gaming has pumped hundreds of millions into Cherokee’s long impoverished economy, making Cherokee a powerful economic force in Western North Carolina.
Along with other changes in Cherokee has come the desire to move beyond the stereotyped images associated with the town, to embrace instead a more authentic representation of tribal heritage.