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Hi, I'm Jason Flom, and you know me from my podcast, where I interview extraordinary people who've been on the wrong end of wrongful convictions. Now, welcome to my new series, Righteous Convictions, where I will speak with some of today's most prominent and active agents of change, people who see the wrong in the world and are driven to make it right. Our guest today is a journalist with a juris doctorate who uses her unique perspective to shine a light on some of our world's darkest problems.
When I started working on how much power prosecutors have and how they can abuse their power, I started looking at prosecutors who had a real record of not disclosing evidence. The state has the police. They have all the power to investigate. And if they find something else that could help you prove your innocence, but they don't tell you about it, then that really leaves you at a big disadvantage.
Now she continues to find new ways to use the power of the pen for good. Senior research fellow at Yale Law School, podcast host and staff writer at The New York Times, Emily Bazelon. Right now on righteous convictions. Welcome back to Righteous Convictions, and today I'm sort of giddy because of our guest, who is one of my favorite humans. Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at The New York Times, a senior research fellow at Yale Law School, not so bad, and co-host of the podcast Political Gabfest.
But beyond that, Emily is one of the four Basilone sisters, each one Breaking Bad Ass records every day.
I mean, you can't believe this gene pool. They are phenomenal. So without further ado, Emily Bazelon, welcome to Religious Convictions. Thank you.
I love that introduction. I love being introduced as one of my four sisters.
And you really are your parents daughter, aren't you? I mean, it's not a coincidence that the four sisters turned out the way they did. Can you tell us about your parents?
My mom is a psychiatrist and my dad is a lawyer. And they both grew up in the 60s in a kind of civil rights tradition. Cared a lot about social justice before. That was really a term. And so my three sisters and I, we grew up in a part of Philadelphia called Germantown.
And my dad worked for the administration of Wilson Goode, who was the first black mayor in Philadelphia. And it was just a really interesting time to be involved in city government because of the racial dynamics in Philadelphia and the sort of recovery of the city from the era of Frank Rizzo, of course, was Philadelphia's like, very belligerent, racist police chief and mayor. And then the move crisis happened during Wilson Goods Administration, and that was when the police bombed house of black activists, 11 people died, including five kids, and sixty five homes in the neighborhood were destroyed.
So that was just a terrible moment for the city. And the fact that we had a black mayor didn't change how awful it was. It really was just a moment of failure for the Philadelphia Police Department. I was like around 10 or 11 when that happened. And it's definitely something I won't forget. And it's Philadelphia is a complicated place with a lot of strengths, but also a lot of tensions about both race and poverty. And so I was pretty aware of all of that growing up.
Before we move forward in time and in your journey, can we just brag about your sisters for a minute? I know you love to do that. So let's just run through this, because I think it's just I mean, my sister Laura, she runs a clinic at the University of San Francisco Law School. She used to run an innocence clinic at Loyola and has successfully exonerated a man in California who spent many years in prison. My sister Jill works for Penn, but she does financial literacy classes and programs in the Philadelphia public schools.
And my sister Dana works for Larry Krassner, who has been the district attorney in Philadelphia for about three, three and a half years and is really trying to do some significant criminal justice reform in the city, as we've been talking about, that really had a different kind of criminal justice tradition.
All of you went to Yale Law School, is that right? No different law school. It's got to share the wealth. Exactly. So I when I went to law school, I had actually worked as a journalist for three or four years, and it was a really good first job. I had a city hall beat in a small suburban city, and then I covered the schools in the region and I learned a lot.
And I went to law school because I was feeling sort of stuck as a journalist. And I had the idea that I would hopefully acquire a base of knowledge and the kind of feeling of expertise. So maybe that would help me go back into journalism.
So you've written on a lot of topics that are near and dear to my heart, bullying, abortion, criminal justice. You even did a famous interview with RBG, right? Yes, voting rights and the legalization of prostitution. If somebody said you have to pick one of these issues, is there one that resonates most with you?
I mean, I think basically the most interest in fairness and equity and I think I've been drawn to writing about criminal justice recently because it feels like there's change happening. There's been an opportunity, really, because mass incarceration has gone so far in the United States. There has been an interest in dialing it back and rethinking some of our over punishment. And so as a journalist, it's exciting to be writing about an area where things are actually happening and you can actually see some movement.
And yet at the same time, it's taking years to unfold. It's not like an easily solved problem.
I think media drove the problem, right? Yes. Going back to super predators and all this other stuff. And now I feel like media as a whole is certainly in a position to undo some of that damage. I feel like the momentum has shifted. It's really the only issue in which there's some cooperation, it feels like, between the left and the right right now.
And I think that that coal interest is part of why the media is doing a better job. So when you're not busy writing for The New York Times, you use your journalism and writing investigative skills to write best selling books, and in 2013 you put out Sticks and Stones, which was a book about bullying. And that's a subject that's very important to me. Now, more recently, you wrote about a subject that's even near and dear to me, to my heart and soul.
I'm talking about our criminal legal system, of course, and I recommend it to anyone and everyone because it's such an important book and it's called Charge. When I started working on it in Twenty Sixteen was a book about the excesses of prosecutorial power. And this is something you know a ton about. But American prosecutors have really in a lot of ways, driven the rise in incarceration. And part of the reason for that is that because of mandatory minimum sentences and the phenomenon of stacking up different charges, they just end up having a lot of power to determine the outcomes of cases.
They force a lot of guilty pleas. And after I started working on the book, movement started across the country to change the shape of the criminal justice system by electing different kinds of people.
As District Attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia as one of the early examples in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Jayson Williams, of course, Travis County, Texas. I mean, it's happening even in parts of the Deep South.
We've seen that phenomenon really grow so charged. It's not a total panacea for all the things that are wrong with the system by any means. But I was really interested in showing how prosecutors commit abuses so that people could really see the way in which having too much power can drive terrible injustice. But then also looking at prosecutors who are trying to do the job differently and offering people second chances. And so the book has all of those different things in it.
And it's told through two stories, the story of Nora Jackson and the story of a 19 year old. I call Kevin in the book who's charged with gun possession in Brooklyn and does end up getting a second chance from his D.A..
It's the power of the personal storytelling, right. When you were able to look at a macro issue through the eyes of an individual who has lived it, which you do so eloquently in the book, it's so important because I think that his case is one obviously that could have turned out really differently. And most of the time, unfortunately, it does. Let's talk about Nora Jackson, because we first connected on the basis of an article you wrote, one of many the cover story in the New York Times Magazine.
This particular story jumped off the page. And I think it's shocking to a lot of people just to even see that headline. She was convicted of murdering her mother. Prosecutors withheld the evidence that would have freed her. We've covered it on the podcast, of course.
Good, good. But what brought you to the story of Nora Jackson?
When I started working on my book and I was interested in showing, as we were saying before, how much power prosecutors have and how they can abuse their power. I started looking at prosecutors who had a real record of not disclosing evidence because this is such a serious problem for people are charged with crimes. The state has the police. They have all the power to investigate. And if they find something out that could help you prove your innocence, but they don't tell you about it, then that really leaves you at a big disadvantage.
And so there is a prosecutor in Shelby County, Tennessee, which is where Memphis is. Her name is Amy Weirich. And she had this kind of record and so did the office record of not disclosing evidence are called Brady violations, stretching back a long time. So I started reading about Amy Weirich and I came across this case involving Nora Jackson that just had so much Paphos and horrible qualities to it, because Nora was 18 years old when her mom was brutally stabbed to death in the middle of the night.
And at first nobody suspected her. She was a girl with no criminal record. She and her mom had been close. There was no history of abuse, which in the rare cases in which children tell their parents there's almost always some history of abuse. And this was missing here. But there were no other clear suspects. And Nora ended up being arrested for this crime, even though the DNA analysis actually excluded her from the crime scene and she was convicted.
And Amy Weirich was the trial prosecutor in her case. And then a couple of years after the trial, Weirich ran for office and became the elected district attorney in Shelby County. And meanwhile, Nora's case only went up through the courts. And when it finally got to the Tennessee Supreme Court, it turned out that there had been exonerating evidence that Weirich and her counsel at trial had not shared with the defense. And so the Tennessee Supreme Court said that Nora would have to have a new trial and eventually she was able to get out of prison.
So, you know, when I started reading about this case and talking to Nora, she was actually still in prison. I hate to sound too practical. I was really interested in her as a person and her experience. But then there was also this way of talking about this problem in a system where you have a.
Prosecutor or a whole office of prosecutors, really, who are over time repeating the same abuse of power and as rare as it is for children to kill their parents, the only thing rarer is for a girl to kill her mother. And I would say that one of the only things that's less common is the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously overturning someone's conviction. These are not liberal judges by any stretch and in their ruling, calling out the prosecutors and citing the abuse of power.
And I would ask our audience, you know, put yourself in the shoes of someone who's on trial for their life, for their very life. And imagine that the prosecutors have evidence of your innocence and they keep it a secret because that's what happened. And tragically, it happens in courtrooms across this country on an alarmingly frequent basis. And Nora was a victim of that very unspeakable practice. But the Article IV had a profound impact on on me and I know on a lot of people and certainly on Nora's life as well.
She's become an important part of both of our lives. Yes, she's become quite literally family.
Well, I mean, you and I have been we share the fact that we love Nora. We do.
She is effectively my adopted daughter. And since I know nothing about education as a college dropout, you've kindly offered to help oversee her college and have been really a great mentor to her. Yeah, I mean, let me just say for to give you credit, Jason, like you have done so much for Nora and it's really been amazing for me to watch. I had a more traditional kind of writer subject relationship with her. I mean, in the very beginning, she didn't trust me at all.
It took me like almost a year to get her to, like, return my letters when she was in prison. And then when I was writing about her, you know, I was like trying to figure out her story and talking to her, but also talking to lots of other people, seeing the side of the prosecutors. And then after my book came out, since then, we've really just become friends. And I have been trying to help a little bit and mostly just feeling really proud of her accomplishments.
And, you know, she's getting A's. She's still young. And that's the fortunate thing, is that for Nora, she still has her whole life ahead of her.
You wake up in the morning and what happens, what what light bulb goes off in your head and says, today I'm going to go fuck shit up, I'm going to go, well, I'm going to go take on some 800 pound monster and see if with the power of words, I can go right this wrong. And then I have one more question for you after that.
Oh, my God, Jason, I love the idea that I even ever have such a day.
I think of work is so, like, incremental. It's like much more. You're building a sandcastle and there's like, oh, here's a grain of sand.
Oh, wait, no, this other one just slipped away. We come back. So I think I partly feel that way because it takes so long to build the really impactful stories. Usually just takes forever and you just don't know along the way how it's all going to pan out. I mean, as I mentioned, it took months for Nora even to let me come and see her and then months after that for her decide to talk to me again.
And so sometimes you're making a lot of time investment. You don't really know what it's going to yield.
So I think my work is much more like Effi and full of, like, unknown problems that could arise at every moment than I ever feel like I'm sort of righteously battling. I think once I've written something when I can sometimes see it having an impact, that is always really satisfying. But a lot of times you just don't know what kind of effect the work is going to have and the time that you're working on it with all these different issues that you've written about that you sort of immerse yourself in.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do?
What would you fix? I mean, I think I would start by really trying to evaluate who we could just let out of the system. Right. So there's like a total shrinking of the footprint from the very beginning. Who is being charged with crimes, who just does not need to have a criminal involvement from the get go? Who is behind bars, who doesn't need to be there any more? Know, rethinking of punishment is a precious resource that we want to have as little of as possible instead of the other way around.
And then I think the other thing for me is I think of poverty as a root cause of so many social ills. And so to the extent that we have capacity in this country for redistribution and for recognizing that sometimes people just need material help in their lives, like I feel like I'm a really lucky person. If you grow up in a house where there's enough and you're not worrying about that all the time, that just frees you to have lots of good experiences.
You're just not worrying about material deprivation. It creates a lot less stress for parents. It just helps families with that.
The last thing is what's next for you and what should people be looking out for?
So I've been working on a project for close to two years involving someone who in prison in Louisiana, whose name is Utako Riley, who has both a terribly excessive sentence and also, I think, a viable innocence claim. And you mentioned earlier on the podcast that there is a new district attorney in New Orleans. His name is Jason Williams. He's a former Innocence Project lawyer himself. And so this case, which seemed quite hopeless when I first learned about it, is now seeming for this prisoner, perhaps more optimistic and kind of unusual.
My sister, Laura, who we talked about earlier, is representing this person. And so we've been really talking to each other a ton about it, which has been such a huge pleasure. So I'm working on that.
And then sort of looking ahead, thinking about how the fact that we have a new Biden administration leaves different things to write about and puts me in a position of wanting to police a Democratic administration, be skeptical, be clear eyed about what they're doing. It's a different kind of work than when the Trump folks were in power. But it's I think it's still really important to have independent journalism, obviously. Thank you for listening to Rightest Convections, I'd like to thank our production team, Connor Hall, Jeff Clyburn and Kevin Amortise.
The music in this production was supplied by three time Oscar nominated composer Jay Rühle. Follow us on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Twitter at Wrong Conviction and on Facebook at wrongful conviction podcast. Righteous Convictions is a production of Lolla for good podcasts in association with single company No. One.