Editor’s Note: This is the 13th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”
Detroit native Ann Mullen won a first-place AltWeekly Award in the News Story–Long Form category for her in-depth piece "Confessions and Recantations," which ran in Detroit’s Metro Times in 2004. The paralegal turned journalist spent several weeks researching and writing this story about a 13-year-old boy, Antoine Morris, who gave police a written statement saying that he had helped his 18-year-old friend, Vidale McDowell, kill Antoine’s mother.
Almost immediately after the boy "confessed" he tried to recant, saying the police had scared him into signing the statements by convincing him he was bound for jail otherwise. Even so, Antoine’s statement helped get McDowell convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, while Antoine accepted a plea bargain that let him go free on probation.
Through her thorough investigation, Mullen exposed the Detroit Police Department’s faulty and inconsistent work. While the murder has never been solved, six months after Mullen’s article appeared, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned McDowell’s conviction, and he was not retried.
A year ago, Mullen left the Metro Times after more than seven years as a staff writer to work as a reporter for ABC’s WXYZ Channel 7 Action News. Here, she talks about her award-winning story.
How did this story come to your attention?
The forensic psychologist who worked on this case was familiar with some of my previous work and contacted me. After evaluating Antoine, he was convinced these kids hadn’t committed these crimes. As soon as I started investigating, I kept finding evidence that didn’t add up. For one thing, Antoine said he had been sleeping upstairs the night his mother was murdered. The police insisted that Antoine could not have slept through the murder — his mother was shot several times. But it was later discovered that he had a hearing problem and may have been able to sleep through gunfire.
Do you normally cover criminal cases?
I did do some other stories on the Police Department, including one about how they didn’t adequately investigate their own officers who shot citizens. I also did a story about how the Police Department let some suspects die in jail — and as a result of that story, the Justice Department came in to investigate. But, no, I didn’t cover crime as a beat.
What challenges did you face working on this story?
There had been a lot of sloppy, lazy police work. There was a lot that didn’t make any sense. The police said they had a statement from a man who said he had been in the basement of Antoine’s home with Antoine’s mother just before she went upstairs and was killed. But the police said that the man’s initial statement, supposedly made on the night of the murder, was lost, though the police originally said it didn’t exist.
There were theories that seemed like they had been invented. The police said the kid across the street had come over with a gun and some wire cutters. But then they said the murder hadn’t been premeditated. There was just a lot of stuff that didn’t add up. Antoine’s mother’s ex-husband lived next door, and he had several guns. He also threatened her life in the past. Another man had beaten her up recently. But both were quickly ruled out as suspects. Antoine’s dad wasn’t present for portions of the interrogation, which is illegal.
The main detective involved in the case agreed to be interviewed, and I thought he was being pretty cagey with me. With Antoine, it was hard to get his attorney to agree to let him talk to me, and in fact his attorney never really did agree, but I did anyway. It was funny because I was trying to help him. The attorney also didn’t want me talking to Antoine’s father. but I did anyway.
What was your interviewing technique like?
I prepared questions based on the legal information I had researched, and I spent a lot of time tracking people down. I didn’t tape any interviews, but I wish I had taped my interview with the police detective more than with anybody.
Had the mainstream media covered the case?
I was told the Detroit Free Press had been planning on doing a big story, but we beat them to the punch.
Do you know what has happened to Antoine Morris since your story was published?
I bumped into Antoine and his father at a gas station recently. I hadn’t seen them in a couple of years. We all hugged, and they seemed fine. And after everything they had gone through, Vidale and Antoine are still friends.
What has it been like for you to make the transition from working for print to broadcast?
Well, the work is the same. I’m finding stories, researching them, conducting interviews. The only difference is the type of production. It’s a lot more teamwork. It’s fun. I’ve only been here a year, I still feel like I’m just trying to figure it out. What I like about TV is the power. Lots of people in Detroit watch TV. They respond to stories and when they do, people in power have no choice other than to respond.
Who are some writers you look up to?
Right now, Seymour Hersh. I read The New Yorker. I read Hendrik Hertzberg’s column and Jane Mayer. When I was at the Metro Times, the people that I worked with were inspiring to be around. I learned so much from them by watching how they did their reporting.
Erika Beras was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is currently a student at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.