Can the Right Coverage Prevent Wrongful Conviction?

By Stav Ziv

Antonio Yarbough had spent the night of June 17, 1992 out with his buddy Sharrif Wilson and some other friends. He says that he came home in the morning to find three bodies. His mother, Annie, along with his sister, Chavonn Barnes, and another 12-year-old girl, Latasha Knox, had been strangled and stabbed.

He ran out of the apartment to find his uncle, who returned to the apartment with him. Yarbough dialed 911. Yarbough and Wilson — 18 and 15 years old at the time, respectively — were interrogated for hours, charged, and later convicted of the murders.

The next day, a headline in the New York Daily News read, “Girl Slain with Pal, 12, Mom.” Another read, “Gay Son and Pal Killed 3: Cops.” The New York Times’ story was topped: “Woman and 2 Girls Are Found Slain, 2 Suspects Charged.” In New York Newsday: “Son and Pal Nabbed in Triple Stabbing.”

Amidst hundreds of homicides in Brooklyn that year, the articles were brief. Each one spelled the names of the victims and suspects differently, and the cursory first-day coverage had other inconsistencies. But there were no second- or third-day stories, according to a database search of those papers. Their names quickly vanished from the papers. Until more than two decades later, when Yarbough and Wilson were exonerated and released from prison.

Antonio Yarbough, right, in Brooklyn last February after the hearing that led to his release.  Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Antonio Yarbough, right, in Brooklyn last February after the hearing that led to his release. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Yarbough’s lawyer, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, filed a motion to vacate Yarbough’s conviction in 2010. He pointed to several flaws in the original trials, including an incompetent attorney and evidence withheld by the prosecutor. Testing in 2013 also matched DNA found under Annie Yarbough’s fingernails with that from a 1999 murder, when Yarbough had long been in prison.

Margulis-Ohnuma says there was overwhelming evidence to throw out Yarbough’s conviction even without the DNA results, but that new information finally pushed it over the edge. On February 6, 2014, Yarbough walked out of a Brooklyn courthouse, suddenly a free man after more than two decades behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Yarbough and Wilson are only two of at least half a dozen men who have been exonerated in New York since January 2014.

It’s clear now that the legal system failed Yarbough when it convicted him of murdering his family and sentenced him to 75 years to life. But did the press fail him as well?

“We tend to glorify [prosecutors] or accept what they do uncritically,” said Paul Moses, who became Brooklyn editor for New York Newsday in 1993, shortly after Yarbough was arrested for the triple murder. A start to better reporting, he said, would be to have a more skeptical attitude toward prosecutors.

But “that’s a very difficult thing as a journalist; your best sources are going to be the prosecutors,” said Maurice Possley, senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has investigated and written on criminal justice for more than three decades.

While a defense attorney is likely to be tight-lipped, he said, the prosecution is usually happy for the chance “to get the word out that they’re doing their job, that they’re protecting the public,” said Possley. “And so it’s very easy to fall into that sort of mindset that the prosecutors are always right and become less critical.” It’s crucial, he said, that reporters maintain a healthy distance and critical eye, as well as an open mind, avoiding assumptions that anyone going through the system must have done something wrong.

“Being vigilant and paying attention prior to conviction is very critical,” said Possley. “After someone’s convicted, the system is not designed to make it easy to undo it. It becomes exponentially harder.”

Yarbough, now 40, said the press crowded around him and the family and friends who had come to the courthouse on the day of his release as he figured out what to do first. Reporters followed him to Junior’s Cheesecake, and waited eagerly to capture his first bite of the pineapple slice he’d ordered.

“Now that I’m out,” Yarbough said in an interview in April, “I’m the hottest thing. Everybody wants to talk to me. I’ve turned down Rolling Stone. I’ve turned down the New Yorker. I’ve turned down Vanity Fair.

But back then, it was all crickets. Yarbough’s case received a meager amount of coverage in June of 1992 and in the months and years that followed. And it has made it difficult, he said, to trust reporters.

“In my case, I had just turned 18 four months prior and had never been in trouble with the law before. Nobody knew that because no one took the time to check,” Yarbough said. “Even though I came from a messed up background … I didn’t have no criminal record, nothing like that. I really wanted someone to come speak with me and ask me my side of the story. How do you take the police and DA’s word for it about something so heinous and not even speak to the person who is supposed to have done the crime?”

One partial explanation was the sheer volume of killings at that time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, homicide rates in New York City had surpassed 2,000 per year, peaking in 1990. According to data from New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, there were 2,245 murders in 1990, with Brooklyn leading the pack at 759 that year. The year Yarbough was charged, there were 1,995 murders citywide, with 652 in Brooklyn. In comparison, the data shows 335 total murders in the five boroughs in 2013; Brooklyn still had the highest number with 147.

“Because of the volume, the system failed more often,” said Margulis-Ohnuma, who has been Yarbough’s lawyer since 2009, but was a reporter for the Daily News back in the early 1990s. “There are more cases coming from that period.”

Moses, who now teaches journalism at Brooklyn College, said, “There was an enormous amount of crime. It took a lot for a murder to make it into the news.” Amidst so many homicides, time and resources were scarce. Though the murders of Annie Yarbough and the two young girls made it into the papers, coverage was brief.

Oren Yaniv — who currently covers Brooklyn courts for the New York Daily News and has written a handful of stories about Yarbough’s case and other recent exonerations — said that doesn’t surprise him. The victim, Yarbough’s mother, was a drug addict living in the projects in Coney Island. “You can see why this wasn’t headline news,” said Yaniv. Those are “not elements that make coverage likely.”

Even today, after a precipitous drop in homicide rates, reporters can’t and don’t report on every case that goes through the courts, Moses and Yaniv agreed.

“We still don’t cover the majority of them,” Yaniv said. Reporters and editors tend not to write about trials “if there’s nothing interesting or newsworthy in the case, tragic as it may be.”

Yaniv is not convinced the press made or could have made a difference for Yarbough, unlike in a high-profile case like the Central Park Five. In that case, five black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a white woman in Central Park. They were exonerated in 2002. In that type of scenario, the press may have more of an effect, Yaniv said, even in terms of how the DA approaches the case.

But there’s a reason, he said, that juries are instructed not to read press coverage about a case. “The system is based on the fact that the jury doesn’t read coverage,” he said, “and the assumption is that most don’t.” However, “if there is injustice, the press has an important role in bringing it to [light].”

Moses also hesitated to say whether the press could have changed the course of Yarbough’s or others’ trials that we now know resulted in wrongful convictions. What we can do, said Moses, is avoid the pack journalism mentality, resist the urge to tie a bow on the catchiest narrative, and be a little more skeptical of law enforcement and prosecutors. Former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes enjoyed a positive reputation during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and many reporters didn’t question the particulars enough, said Moses.

After all, police and DAs are charged with holding people accountable for crimes. But the press is charged with holding police and DAs accountable and exposing unique and particularly systemic mishandling of the process.

In 2013, the New York Times did just that. Sharon Otterman and Michael Powell wrote about David Ranta, who had been accused in 1990 of killing Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger in Williamsburg. Ranta, it turned out, appeared to have been framed by Detective Louis Scarcella in a case with shoddy evidence and glaring police misconduct.

Times reporter Frances Robles followed up when she “discovered that the lead detective in that case used the same ‘witness’ in half a dozen unrelated murders and put similar phraseology in the mouths of a number of suspects he swore had confessed,” according to the George Polk Awards announcement for 2013.

In this instance, said Yaniv, the press unequivocally played a role, putting pressure on Hynes to address the issue and demanding a review of dozens of cases tied to Scarcella. The host of potential wrongful convictions became a campaign issue. Hynes had been elected DA six times, serving consecutively since 1989. But in 2013, he lost his bid for a seventh term to Kenneth Thompson, who promised to investigate and overturn wrongful convictions.

Possley, however, also believes the press can have an impact on proceedings in real time, with no connection to swaying a jury. “I’m a great believer in sunshine. That if people know they are being watched, scrutinized, paid attention to, that that has a behavior modification effect,” he said.

“For the people who do it right, it’s not necessary. For the people that don’t, the idea that the press is there can have a positive effect on behavior,” said Possley, who is the author of the very first story to come out of the Marshall Project—“a not-for-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering America’s criminal justice system,” according to its website.

“I think that things have changed and will continue to change, for the better,” said Possley, who cited conviction integrity units, recorded interrogations, new procedures for the administration of lineups, and other adjustments that make the criminal justice system look different today than it did 20 or 25 years ago.

“All these flaws that are exposed by going back and reassessing what went wrong, how someone got wrongly convicted, it’s provided this great window into the workings of the criminal justice system so that we can see these flaws and attempt to correct them,” said Possley. And he has, no doubt. “Having a vigilant press makes the system work better,” said Possley.

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