What the Southeast Missourian learned from its coverage of a wrongfully convicted local man

For years, the Southeast Missourian has been following the case of David Robinson, a man who had served 16 years of a life sentence for the murder of a local woman. The Rust-owned newspaper provided its audience incredible reporting on the case, showing just how questionable the conviction of Robinson was. You can read more about it on their specialty site. (http://www.semissourian.com/lifewithout)

A few weeks ago, their reporting resulted in Robinson’s release from prison. 

We caught up with the editor of the Missourian, Bob Miller, to hear more about their coverage and the lessons learned.

Tell us about the unique partnership you created with a local university that allowed you to devote serious resources to the story?

The newspaper was able to cover the costs of a freelance videographer in 2016 by attaining Southeast Missouri State University as a sponsor. We did two rounds of investigations, one into the evidence of the case and Robinson’s evidence, and another deeper dive into how the police handled the investigation. We didn’t know if there would be anything there, but once we unlocked one troublesome anecdote, we found an avalanche of issues.

We sent Sunshine Law requests to the Sikeston Department of Public Safety, the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Missouri Department of Corrections, the Scott and Mississippi County court clerks, the Scott County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, the Scott County Sheriff’s Department and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

We built a timeline of actions and cross-checked documents to see if there were documents listed or mentioned in one place that could be accessed elsewhere. Documents included trial transcripts, pre-trial and post-conviction deposition transcripts, investigative, forensic and interview reports and old newspaper reports. That’s how we knew that the AG’s office and the Sikeston DPS weren’t complete in their responses to our request.

How did your readers react to the coverage?

The page views and video views were solid, but not overwhelming. We got very little bang for the buck, so to speak. Those who viewed and read ourcoverage were blown away, but our series did not capture a wider audience, really, until CBS swooped in after the Supreme Court ruling.

Jon Rust received some racist comments asking why we kept running a photo of the black guy on our front page. Once CBS mentioned us, responses came pouring in far and wide. The CBS mentions seemed to be a validation for many of our local readers, who before had not written in to congratulate us on our journalism. But the CBS shoutout also stoked people within the industry and people who care about wrongful convictions to reach out to us and read our coverage. The entire issue of Robinson’s case, outside of the family, piqued after our coverage was brought to the attention on a national scale.

What was it like to see Robinson reunited with his family after he was released?

Knowing that several reporters worked on this case for almost a decade, with intense focus the last two years, it was a very emotional moment watching David reunited with his family outside the prison. It was an emotional roller coaster on many levels. 

Knowing that an innocent man had been freed from prison is an emotional high in and of itself. Exposing what we exposed took many, many hours of manpower. So all that work by our team made David’s exoneration sweeter, knowing that we were right and justified in our work. But we felt sadness, too, because it should not have taken so long for the state of Missouri to free David Robinson. The case was very straightforward and obvious once you gathered all the facts and information.

How did Robinson’s family react to your coverage?

David’s family was very appreciative of our coverage, to the point of tears. For years, there was one investigator carrying the torch for David, until the Bryan Cave team came along. But David’s mother, Jennett McCaster, and the rest of David’s family, knew the details. Once we began our first investigative report, their friends and the public began to believe in his innocence, too. And what happened to David wasn’t done by accident. There was a reason he was convicted, and the police not only looked the other way when there were other suspects, but they’re accused of intimidating witnesses to not testifying on David’s behalf. The family was thankful that we exposed that, because not all of those things came out in court.

Doing these kinds of projects is challenging from a resource perspective. How are you thinking about that going forward?

The most depressing element in this case, from a journalism perspective, is that I’m not sure we could do this same type of work today. Investigative journalism has reached a critical point at our institution. As Jon Rust has said, investigative journalism, while maybe good for the brand, does not move the needle. It takes a huge amount of resources without obvious return in subscriptions or advertising. When advertisers pull their dollars or when people drop their subscriptions the result is that they’re eroding our ability to serve our role as the Fourth Estate. Injustices such as Robinson’s may not be revealed in the future if we can’t figure out a way to pay for the work that is required.