Tuesday, December 23, 2014

End of 2014 List

Thanks to everyone who visited this blog over the past year, as I further shifted from blogging towards publishing in print and online outlets. Here's some of my work from the past year:


1. The Mystery of the San Antonio Four

2. The Price of Death

3. The Anchor Boys

4. To Kill? Or Not to Kill?

5. Israel, Palestine, and the New Evangelicals


6. The Rise of Cowboy Churches

7.  On Orange is the New Black, Season 2

8. How Christians Helped Create the Muslim Brotherhood

9. When Prisoners Read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment...

10. Going Secular at SXSW

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Marshall Project

I'm now a staff writer with The Marshall Project. Check there for my latest writing about criminal justice, in Texas and around the country. We'll be launching soon.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where Have All The Cowboy Churches Come From?

As the number of literal cowboys in Texas dwindles, one begins to wonder, how do you grow a church based on a way of life that hardly exists anymore? 

Read the rest at Texas Monthly

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Anchor Boys: Tough Love or Abuse?

The Baptist preacher Lester Roloff founded the Anchor Home for Boys to help troubled teenagers get their lives back on track. Nearly fifty years and three states later, the school that bears his name has transformed dramatically and escaped the allegations of abuse that once plagued its reputation. But many of its alumni are still haunted by questions.

With help from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, I spent several months examining allegations of abuse over the 40+ years at this residential program for "troubled" teen boys.

Read the short version at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Read the long version at The Revealer

And check out the short documentary by Deborah Esquenazi at either link.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Many Lives of a Death Drug

The State of Texas uses pentobarbital for lethal injections, a drug with a long and complicated history. But the question everyone wants answered remains: Is it a painless way to die?

Read the rest at Texas Monthly

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A District Attorney's Decision

"It was Matagorda County’s first potential death penalty case in years. If it did become a capital murder case, a jury would have to decide whether Kotlar should be sentenced to death. It would then be up to state and federal appeals courts to uphold the verdict, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to carry out the execution by lethal injection.

"But whether to seek the death penalty, whether it was even on the table, was Steven Reis’ decision alone."

Read my long exploration of a district attorney's decision about the death penalty in The Texas Observer 

Photo by Michael Stravato

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Working to Prove Innocence of Inmates

LUBBOCK, Tex. — In the back of the Cotton Exchange building in Lubbock’s dusty downtown, the Innocence Project of Texas keeps more than 10,000 files from state prisoners in dozens of blue, purple, and white plastic boxes.

Read the rest at the NYT

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Going Secular at SXSW

As Gungor concluded its South by Southwest set at the Red Eyed Fly, a grungy downtown Austin club, a fan in the front row started shouting at the band. It was a familiar request: to sing just one more song. “Play ‘Beautiful Things’!” she yelled as the musicians started to clear the stage of guitars and keyboards. “You need to play ‘Beautiful Things’!” The song is the band’s biggest hit, but it hadn’t made the set list, which featured material mostly culled from the band’s new album, I Am Mountain. “I had never seen a fan get that furious with us,” Michael Gungor, the band’s leader, told me. Most musicians develop a thick skin when it comes to heckling, but this woman’s anger had a wounded quality. “You can’t be ashamed,” she said.

Ashamed, that is to say, because we weren’t in a church. 

Read the rest at Texas Monthly

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Before 'True Detective'

In honor of all of the breathless praise accompanying the release of HBO’s new crime noir series True Detective, The Atlantic is urging readers to revisit two short stories by Nicolas Pizzolatto, the show’s creator. The stories appeared in the magazine ten years ago, when Pizzolatto was an MFA student at the University of Arkansas, and they explore themes that would later mark the HBO series. 

Chief among those is gender and the relationship between men and women. Pizzolatto is a radically masculine writer. The female characters of True Detective serve primarily as foils for the rich inner life of his two lead men: a haunted, philosophically-tinged caricature of the old west lawman played by a sinewy Mathew McConaughey and a thick-ribbed Woody Harrelson, whose character projects stolid family conservatism while he cheats on his wife.

Pizzolatto’s story “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” published in the November 2004 issue of the The Atlantic, also centers around two men. One is an aging Texas high school football coach (a tragic inversion of Friday Night Lights Coach Taylor) whose daughter has run off to California and stars in porn films. The other is the narrator, Bobby Corresi, a few years out of high school, going by Robert now but in no other way older or wiser. He once longingly hoped for romance with the daughter and agrees to help the coach bring her home.

Read the rest at American Short Fiction

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Where Have All the Cosmic Cowboys Gone?

A bite-sized book review of Jason Mellard's new book Progressive Country

By the end of the 1970s, the mythological image of the Texan was no longer secure and simple. The television show Dallas, which premiered in 1978, and the 1980 film Urban Cowboy were presenting glitzy reinventions of the cowboy image. Austin had become known for the redneck-meets-hippie styles of Willie Nelson and the Armadillo World Headquarters. In 1975, a Texas Monthly cover had asked, “Is The Texas Cowboy Extinct?” At the end of the decade, such a figure was far from monolithic, if it still existed at all.

Read the rest at The Texas Observer

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Closing Corsicana

When the Texas Juvenile Justice Department released a report in June 2013 recommending the closure of the Corsicana Residential Treatment Facility, situated in the small city of Corsicana, Texas, 55 miles south of Dallas, the authors presented an arresting image. The campus, they wrote, “continues to pose a risk to the vulnerable youth population it serves as hazardous debris and glass are continually unearthed after rain or strong winds.” The roughly 90 youths at the facility, most of whom had been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses and who had committed crimes, were using the glass and debris to "harm themselves." Many of the buildings, the authors noted, "warrant complete replacement."
When Corsicana was finally emptied by the Texas Legislature in December 2013, many in the world of juvenile justice reform already viewed the facility as dangerous and unsalvageable. A federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that in 2008, 23 percent of Corsicana inmates reported having had sexual relations with staff. Violence was up as well; in 2012, the facility was responsible for 32 percent of all violent incidents in the juvenile justice agency, despite housing only 10 percent of the agency’s youths.
It hadn't always been this way.

Read the rest at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (also posted at The Center for Public Integrity and The Texas Tribune)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Can a Wrongful Conviction Ever Be Forgiven?

Every story of a wrongful conviction is a story of lingering bitterness and lasting feuds. Consider Anthony Graves, who is filing a complaint with the State Bar against prosecutor Charles Sebesta, who has never admitted to the mistakes that led to Graves’s sitting on death row for twelve years. The San Antonio Four, sent to prison for more than a decade for a bizarre sexual assault that never happened, have had no contact with the prosecutors, police, or doctor involved in their convictions.  And even when former district attorney Ken Anderson publicly apologized for “the system’s failure” that sent Michael Morton to prison for nearly 25 years for a murder he didn’t commit, Anderson still defended his prosecution of Morton. 

Do these stories ever end with reconciliation? Is it even possible to forgive such an egregious error? Perhaps it really is a matter of time healing all wounds. Nearly thirty years after wrongfully convicting Timothy Cole, the City of Lubbock is accepting its involvement in this tragedy. The city is unveiling a ten-foot-tall statue of Cole, who was convicted of rape in 1986, died in prison in 1999, and was proven innocent by DNA evidence in 2009. It’s the most direct instance yet of an institution—in this case the City of Lubbock—publicly commemorating its own failures in sending an innocent person to prison. “It really is about reconciliation, and hope,” Cole’s brother Cory Session explained.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Meet the Texas Prisoners Who Read 'Crime & Punishment'

“It’s a story about the difference between the head and the heart,” says Brian Troy. The story is Crime and Punishment by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and though it was a difficult read for Troy, the themes were familiar to him. Along with a dozen other men wearing dark blue scrubs, Troy is sitting in a large concrete classroom at the Cleveland Correctional Center in rural East Texas, about an hour north of Houston.
Everyone in the room, all of them convicted criminals currently serving out their sentences, had been assigned to read Dostoevsky’s epic as part of a yearlong course on business skills offered by the Houston nonprofit Prison Entrepreneurship Program. They’re all nodding along as Troy compares his life to that of the main character. “Raskolnikov rationalized killing this pawnbroker,” he says, describing the book’s seminal moment. “I got into this situation trying to rationalize: bend a rule here, bend a rule there, and then it piles up.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Mystery of the San Antonio Four

After more than a year of work, I'm happy to finally share my long magazine article on the four women who came to be known as the San Antonio Four.

Elizabeth Ramirez was four months pregnant when she heard a knock at the door.

Read the rest at The Texas Observer