Trading Away Justice

Trading Away Justice is a national reporting project on plea bargaining by a collaboration of professional and student journalists from news organizations and universities. We are documenting cases from across the country in which innocent people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit and building a database of their stories to identify the leading causes and consequences of this phenomenon.

The first installments include work produced by Injustice Watch, Capital News Service at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and PBS NewsHour:

CHICAGO. Two brothers, two choices: A plea bargain’s toll on the innocent. Henry and Juan Johnson, wrongly convicted of murder, won a new trial after 11 years in prison. The prosecutor offered to let them walk free — but only if they pleaded guilty.



BALTIMORE. Plea deals punish the innocent, hide the guilty in Baltimore police scandal. The courts are voiding scores of convictions tied to arrests by corrupt police officers. Why did so many of their victims plead guilty?

Casualties of Indifference

Part 1 Pedestrian casualties mount in Maryland town as officials defer action  
After three young pedestrians were struck and killed by cars near the University of Maryland in 2014, the Maryland State Highway Administration committed to swift and comprehensive safety improvements within months. Not so in Langley Park, a poor, immigrant community a few minutes west of campus. A student investigation at Capital News Service found at least 138 pedestrians have been struck, eight fatally, along a dangerous, two-mile stretch of state road since 2009 — and that the highway administration has done little to stop the carnage. (CNS photo by Rebecca Rainey)
Part 2 100 hotspots: Pedestrian accidents pile up on state roads across Maryland 
A car struck and killed Consuelo Anglarill, 82, last January as she crossed a state road outside the Wheaton Metro station. Only three days earlier, a woman was seriously injured near the same spot.  Since 2015, 42 pedestrians have been hit on state-maintained streets in the Washington suburb. It’s among 100 hotspots for pedestrian accidents statewide, an analysis by Capital News Service found.

The Uncounted: The deadly epidemic America is ignoring

Fifteen years after the U.S. declared drug-resistant infections to be a grave threat to public health, our investigation found tens of thousands of deaths are going uncounted by public health authorities, because state and government agencies remain unwilling or unable to impose basic reporting requirements on a healthcare industry that often hides the problem. The Uncounted.

Audio: ProPublica podcast | “The Hidden Toll of Drug-Resistant Superbugs

Audio: IRE Radio podcast | “The Killer That Got Away

The Brothel Next Door

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Maryland officials pledged three years ago to improve anti-trafficking efforts by collecting and sharing evidence of the problem from “every part of government.” They never followed through. So Capital News Service at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism did its own examination. Student reporters pored over thousands of pages of police records, prosecution data and court files. The investigation found widespread evidence of human trafficking but few convictions….
The Brothel Next Door

Water’s Edge: The crisis of rising sea levels

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 8.02.48 AMAs the seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at America’s shores.  A Reuters analysis finds that flooding is increasing along much of the nation’s coastline, forcing many communities into costly struggles with a relentless foe, while Congress debates whether climate change is real and outdated government policies provide a perverse incentive for continued development of the coastline.

“Why do they eat in soup kitchens?”

Merrill College of Journalism students paired with Latvian journalism students to report on soup kitchens in Riga for RE: Baltica, The Baltic Center for Investigative Reporting, which has been documenting poverty and income inequality in the Baltic states.

The Unequal State of America

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The gap between rich and poor has widened in virtually every corner of the nation, a Reuters analysis found. The Unequal State of America examines the impact of government policies on rising inequality and the impact of inequality on people’s lives. Explore what’s happening in your state with the interactive graphics.


The Cruelest Show on Earth

The Cruelest Show on Earth in Mother Jones documents decades of deaths, illness and injury in the famed herd of performing elephants at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

May 21, 2017: Ringling Bros. travelling circus performed its last show.
Mar. 5, 2015: Feld Entertainment announced that it will phase out elephants in the Ringling Bros. travelling circus by 2018 “to meet shifting consumer preferences.” I talked about it with Warren Olney on NPR.
Nov. 28, 2011: Feld Entertainment agreed to pay a $270,000 penalty — the largest ever under the Animal Welfare Act — to settle numerous alleged violations for mistreatment of elephants and other circus animals.After USDA announced the settlement, Feld released a statement, noting it was not admitting anything but would “enhance” its animal care. The historic penalty ended decades of USDA inaction on abuse allegations against Ringling in inspections, investigations and through long-standing efforts by animal welfare groups — such as PETA, ASPCA and the Animal Protection Institute.

Image by David Cook Wildlife Photography

Watchdog in China

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.14.48 PMChina’s leading watchdog reporter is a rare breed

China’s most famous investigative journalist works in obscurity out of a  cluttered, closet-sized room on the second floor of a small office building on the outskirts of Beijing.

That Wang Keqin works at all is a wonder.  He is one in a scarce breed of devoted watchdog journalists who are managing to keep the craft alive amidst stepped up censorship by China’s government.

They are succeeding in no small part by using social media to communicate directly with their readers.  Unlike their Western counterparts, who might Tweet as an afterthought to an investigative project, social media sometimes are the only means for Chinese reporters to publish the truth about sensitive stories.

“In a country where the media is controlled by the government, the Internet has become an important, unprecedented, and huge platform to break censorship and pass the truth to the public,” Wang said through a translator in a recent interview in his office at the China Economic Times, where he is the chief reporter on a six-person investigative team. Continue reading