I never met Pete Shellem. I hadn't heard of him until reading his obituary last week through a link on the blog of New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield. But I wish I'd had a drink with the guy.
In an age when journalism has been inflicted not only by ballyhooed budget woes and challenges from new media, but also a glut of dubious trend stories, horserace political coverage and endless navel-gazing about the state of the profession, Shellem merely freed four wrongly convicted people from prison in a period of 10 years with his reporting. Oh, and in the 1990s he also brought down a Pennsylvania state attorney general in a mail-fraud investigation. Today, that fallen attorney general, Ernie Preate, Jr., has only praise for Shellem. Shellem died unexpectedly last week at age 49.
Described by a former colleague in a 2007 American Journalism Review profile as a "B-movie reporteryou know, a chain-smoking tough guy who meets his sources in bars and operates around the edges," Shellem spent two decades covering the courts for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. In the accounts of his passing, colleagues and friends describe him as the sort of reporter who read court transcripts, trial briefs and lab reports for fun, whose office was filled with phone numbers scrawled on bar napkins and letters from desperate convicts proclaiming their innocence. Between filing stories about murder trials and covering day-to-day court operations, Shellem developed and worked sources in Pennsylvania's criminal-justice system. He also developed an eye for spotting irregularities in police reports, crime lab reports, witness statements and other court documents. That's when he started helping innocent people get out of jail.
The first person Shellem's reporting freed from prison was Patricia Carbone. In 1984, Carbone told police she'd been abducted by a man named Jerome Lint, who Carbone says also attempted to rape her. Carbone pulled a knife from her purse, and stabbed and killed Lint. Prosecutors didn't believe Carbone's story. They tried and convicted her of murder, and sentenced her to life in prison. In his reporting, Shellem found another woman who Lint had assaulted. That led prosecutors to reopen Carbone's case and eventually release her from prison in 1998.
Shellem's reporting also tore holes in the state's case against Steve Crawford, convicted at age 14 of the 1970 killing of a friend. He spent 28 years in prison. Shellem found new evidence supporting Crawford's innocence, including evidence that a state crime lab report had been altered to incriminate Crawford. Crawford, too, was eventually released.
In helping free Barry Laughman, a mentally retarded man convicted of killing an 85-year-old woman, Shellem tracked DNA in the case all the way to Leipzig, Germany. Convicted in 1988 before modern DNA testing, even Laughman's own defense team had no idea what happened to the biological evidence taken from the crime scene, nor did they understand that locating the evidence could definitively establish their client's guilt or innocence. Shellem tracked the evidence to the then-Penn State University professor who had analyzed it for Laughman's trial, but had since moved to Germany. He had taken the evidence with him. When tested, it showed Laughman was not the man who committed the rape.
Finally there's David Gladden, convicted of assaulting, murdering and then setting fire to an elderly woman in 1995. In 2006, based solely on his own reputation for exposing injustice, Shellem was able to convince Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. to reopen the case. Shellem then showed not only that an informant in the case had lied (the informant later recanted his testimony), but that the victim lived in the same building as a serial killer who killed his victims in the same manner in which the woman had been murdered. Gladden was released. (Read Shellem's cutting expose on Gladden's case here.)
Preate, the former attorney general who did a year in prison because of Shellem's reporting in the mid-1990s, now works for a prison-reform organization. He describes Shellem as a "one-man Innocence Project."
"He busted my ass. ... You've got to recognize the work that he's done and the value he's given to society. He was there when the justice system failed," Preate says. Quoted in his own paper, Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse put Preate's praise of Shellem in perspective. "How many journalists gain the admiration not only of those they help but of those they expose?" Newhouse asks.
In the age of fluffy politician profiles, moral-panic inducing magazine covers that spawn ill-considered legislation and multi-part investigative series that practically scream out for handing more power over to government, Shellem was motivated by an understanding of the free press' most important responsibility: to check the coercive power of the state. "I was always taught that reporters are supposed to be government watchdogs," Shellem told Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mario Cattabiani, who wrote the 2007 profile of Shellem in the American Journalism Review. "The most drastic thing the government can do to an individual is charge them with a crime and send them to jail," he said. "We have a good justice system in this country, and it pisses me off to see people misuse it to run over people, most of whom are at some sort of disadvantage."
"If people need to be embarrassed into doing the right thing," Shellem added, "I'm happy to oblige them."
Shellem's death wasn't reported outside Pennsylvania. In fact, his work, incredible as it was, rarely made it outside the state. As his editor John Kirkpatrick told Cattabani, if Shellem had worked for The Washington Post, he'd have been famous. He'd have a deskful of awards and a commenting gig on MSNBC. But then, he'd no longer have been stalking the halls of Pennsylvania courthouses, either. "He doesn't care about that," Kirkpatrick said in 2007, explaining Shellem's desire to stay in Harrisburg. "He cares about righting these wrongs."
I don't particularly know or care what journalismas defined by those pontificating on the future of the professionneeds right now. But society needs more Pete Shellems. Because there's a seemingly endless supply of people in power in need of embarrassment.
Rest in peace.
Radley Balko is senior editor of Reason magazine where this column originally appeared. The JFP Daily features his column every Tuesday.