VINCENNES, Indiana — (DMN) – Five people were killed in a fiery crash on a rural Indiana highway after their car became wedged beneath a semitrailer and was dragged for several hundred feet before bursting into flames. Indiana State police Sgt. Todd Ringle says the 21-year-old driver was trying to cross a stretch of the four-lane U.S. 41 near Oaktown Wednesday night when the collision happened. Ringle says the four passengers were all younger than 18. Oaktown is in Southwestern Indiana between Terre Haute and Evansville.
The driver, Emma Lockard, 21, of Carlisle, along with her two children, Anna Leigh Hunt, 2, and Noah Jay Hunt, 1, were all pronounced dead at the scene. Two other passengers, Laura Hull, 17, of Mt. Carmel, IL, and Ronnie Mendoza, 17 of Carlisle, also died. The Knox County Sheriff’s Department says Lockard’s vehicle was coming off Old U.S. 41 near Oaktown, when it crossed the northbound lane and entered the southbound lane. That’s when it became lodged underneath a semi. Police say there was an explosion, causing a fire. Autopsy results all five people died of smoke inhalation. The driver of the truck was not injured.
I have worked in the broadcast industry for more than 30 years. I have been fired, hired, quit and rehired more times than I care to remember. I have worked as the managing editor of a newsroom, program director, talk show host…you get the picture. When Clear Channel’s KTRH in Houston blew up it’s news department in favor of right-wing fanatical talk show hosts, some of whom pose as news anchors, I derided the decision. Houston’s loss was Dallas’ gain as most of KTRH’s news staff went north on I-45 to CBS owned KRLD. One of these consummate professionals is Scott Braddock who is known throughout Texas as a fair and impartial arbitrator of the facts. Scott is one hell of a reporter.
When Radio One signed on News92FM in Houston, I heralded their arrival in the Houston market. 100% news, 0% spin! A much needed addition to a market cluttered with right wing trash posing as news hosts. I also heralded Radio One’s decision to bring back, almost intact, the old KTRH news department. J.P. Pritchard, Lana Hughes, Bonnie Petrie and my friend Scott Braddock. Everything was fine until recently. Scott Braddock was fired from News92FM for appearing on a non-commercial radio station. Here’s Scott’s story:
I stood in my kitchen at home in Houston and tried to assure a woman who recently had an abortion that I would be fair to her if she appeared on my radio program. As I talked to Carolyn Jones, who had called me from Austin, she was very nervous about what questions I might ask her on the air. As has always been my policy, I didn’t give her any specific questions, but I let her know she’d get the chance to tell people about her experience with new restrictions on abortions in Texas. She’d get a fair shake, which is all I ever promise anyone.
We did the interview on News 92 FM. Jones didn’t come with talking points. She didn’t come with spin. One reason an interview like this is compelling is you can hear how the person with no broadcast experience isn’t ever quite sure how to begin their answer to a question. There’s a nervousness there that just isn’t an issue for someone like me who lives his life on the airwaves. She wasn’t comfortable at all, but she stayed with it and told total strangers all about some of what would otherwise be some of the most private moments of her life.
Right after the interview, one of my colleagues dropped by the studio and said “Oh my God that was hard to listen to.” I asked “Why?” “It was just too real,” they said.
You can judge for yourself whether the interview was fair. Take a listen.
Later that day, as a favor to my friend Geoff Berg, I filled in for him on his show on community radio KPFT in Houston. On Geoff’s show, I did what I always do: Cover the news. Carolyn’s interview was included in my coverage of the news on Geoff’s show. After that, I was fired from News 92 FM. When I was fired, it was surreal. News 92 News Director Denise Bishop had the look of someone headed to a family funeral when she asked me to join her in our boss Doug Abernethy’s office. Doug is the Regional Vice President for the company in Houston.
Abernethy told me I was in breach of contract for having appeared on another radio station and for playing the Jones interview that had originally aired on News 92. The trouble with that argument is I had not signed my contract. I was still reviewing the paperwork and no one at Radio One (the owner of News 92) had made it a priority to get me to sign it. The bosses also made the argument that the interview was their intellectual property, which would only even apply if I had used the interview to make a profit somewhere else. KPFT is non-profit and I was not paid for my appearance on that station. It was a favor for a friend.
As a journalist, I never assume I know the reason anyone does anything. My role is to present facts and facilitate discussion. Since the stated reason for my dismissal made no sense, many started guessing what the actual reason might be. On Twitter and other social media, one idea started to drown out all others about why the bosses felt I should be out the door: Abortion politics. As one tweeter put it: “If @scottbraddock had interviewed a MAN that was affected by an invasive government mandate, would @News92FM have fired him?” The Dallas Morning News, the Quorum Report and the Houston Chronicle also posted stories suggesting the firing could be politically motivated.
The Texas Observer asked “Why was Scott Braddock Fired?” and the national website Raw Story went with this headline: “Texas reporter fired after shocking interview on transvaginal sonograms.” Others said that if the radio station was done with me, they were done with the station. A twitter feed and a Facebook page were established to support me and give my former listeners information about anything they might be able to do. I did not start those efforts. It’s my understanding that News 92 managers have been bombarded with phone calls and emails from upset listeners for a solid week. Some of them have been forwarded to me. As I would with any issue, I’ve covered the new abortion restrictions from all sides. I have the support of both Texans for Life and Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. The presidents of both groups have asked News 92 FM managers to reconsider their decision to fire me.
My future is unclear, but I’d like to get back to covering the news. So, let’s do that. The reporter in me wanted to know: How does the subject of this news story feel about how things unfolded. I emailed Carolyn Jones to ask her why she was hesitant to go on the radio in the first place:
“Writing an article about my experience was something that I had control over: I could choose the words and the tone and decide how much or how little I wanted to say. On live radio, I have less control and I can’t go back and revise my words till they’re right. To speak about something as personal and painful as abortion, one that is also a hot-button political issue, was really scary. I wasn’t sure how Scott would handle it and whether I’d find myself on live radio having to defend my choices. As it turned out, his warm and approachable style meant that the interview was less terrifying than I’d expected it to be. He let me tell my story — with no editorializing from him — and for that I’m very grateful.”
I’m grateful she was willing to be “terrified” with me live on the radio. The terrified need a place they can share their stories. I hope they’ll always have one.
Allow me to opine for a moment. In my opinion, Scott did make a mistake appearing on another radio station and airing news material without the authorization of his employer. Truthfully though, in radio, this is an easy mistake to understand. Anderson Cooper appears on both CNN and CBS and other reporters appear on multiple stations as well. Scott was an anchor at News92FM so I can understand the need to get his contract signed and, perhaps, to levy some discipline for appearing on another station. That’s just not something that happens everyday without some kind of agreement.
That being said, the decision to fire Scott is heavy handed and unnecessary. Scott’s reputation throughout Texas is unblemished and noted. He was and is a considerable personality/reporter who adds tremendous credibility to News92FM’s profile. I too am beginning to question this decision. I e-mailed Radio One and received a polite response that basically said thanks for your interest but we are not able to discuss personnel matters. What this does is allows them to hide behind a veil of secrecy that does not add up. 100% news…yes! 0% spin…I wonder. This blemish will not go away and I implore the management to revisit this decision before it is past the point of no return.
Here in Texas we are so tough on crime we have thrown any semblance of justice out the window on more than one occasion. Before you try to label me as some “soft on crime” liberal, that’s the farthest thing from the truth but what I want to know is that every involved in our criminal justice system is on a level playing field. I want to know that when we convict someone, it’s the right person and when we execute someone, in our name, it’s the right person. I began to lose faith in the Texas criminal justice system when I saw, first hand, how some criminal matters are prosecuted.
Back in 2007, I watched a case in criminal court in Harris County play out. The defendant was charged in a dope dealing case. Seems simple enough except for one major piece of the puzzle. There was no search warrant in the court paperwork. The defense attorney demanded to see the warrant so the case was re-set for a later date. The defendant did not give the police authorization to search his car or a hotel room he was staying in. The police arrested him, in the car, and took the car apart to “inventory” it’s contents prior to being impounded. Strangely, no dope was found. The cops then put the defendant, handcuffed, in the back seat of a police car where he spent 8 hours refusing to allow the search of his hotel room.
At the next court setting, a search warrant mysteriously appeared in the paperwork although it was unsigned. What shook out in court was this. The defendant plead guilty and received a 5 year prison sentence for dope dealing on a charge that carried a possible sentence of 5-99 years. Seems reasonable I suppose but what about the search warrant. What about the 4th amendment? If the guy was dealing a half pound of methamphetamine, 5 years seems short but sloppy police work and a D.A. hell bent on a conviction…any conviction…resulted in a minimum sentence.
What I saw was, apparently, not all that uncommon. I have heard stories about illegal search and seizures in Houston and Harris County for years. I have heard complaints about judges who act as an arm of the District Attorney on the bench with little or no fear of having some incredulous decisions overturned by the Court of Appeals. Now, take this case in Houston where the D.A. and police act with impunity and take into consideration that Texas leads the nation in DNA and non-DNA exonerations and you begin to see that there is a problem here. Anthony Graves and Michael Morton have both been featured on 60 minutes and their stories of being exonerated have been covered on this blog and others in the Lone Star. There is also the case of Kerry Max Cook who was, arguably, railroaded to Texas Death Row several times before being offered a shady plea deal that eventually set him free.
The Texas Tribune reports that in 91 criminal cases in Texas since 2004, the courts decided that prosecutors committed misconduct, ranging from hiding evidence to making improper arguments to the jury, according to data that the Innocence Projectwill release today. None of those prosecutors has ever been disciplined. “It paints a bleak picture about what’s going on with accountability and prosecutors,” said Cookie Ridolfi, founder of the Northern California Innocence Project, who researched misconduct data in Texas and other states.
Texas Prosecutors Craig Watkins (L) Dallas County, Pat Lykos (C) Harris County and Kelly Siegler (R) have been critical of prosecutorial misconduct.
At a symposium tpday at the University of Texas at Austin, exonerees Michael Morton of Texas and John Thompson of Louisiana, along with lawyers and legal scholars, will discuss the need for increased accountability for prosecutors nationally and in Texas. The symposium is part of a national accountability campaign by the New York-based Innocence Project. Prosecutorial misconduct has become a national issue in the wake of the high-profile exoneration cases of Thompson and Morton.
Thompson, who was convicted of murder in 1984, was freed from Louisiana’s death row after investigators found biological evidence that proved his innocence. The evidence had been concealed in the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office for 15 years. A jury awarded him $14 million — $1 million for each year he spent in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the award in a 5-4 ruling last year, deciding that the prosecutor was not liable.
Morton served nearly 25 years of a life sentence before DNA results showed last year that he was innocent. His lawyers discovered that Ken Anderson, who oversaw Morton’s case as the Williamson County prosecutor in 1987, did not turn over evidence that could have led to his acquittal. A rare court of inquiry is scheduled to begin in September and will investigate whether Anderson committed criminal prosecutorial misconduct. Anderson has said that while he regrets that the judicial system made mistakes in Morton’s case, he did nothing wrong. “There’s no disincentive for a prosecutor to do it unless he or she has an internal moral code themselves,” Ridolfi said. In a study of California cases, her organization reported that from 1997 to 2009, courts found 707 instances of prosecutorial misconduct. There were just six instances in which prosecutors were disciplined.
As more inmates are being freed based on DNA evidence, Ridolfi said, more cases of misconduct are being identified. Although it is often the same prosecutors who repeatedly engage in misconduct, she said, the problem reflects poorly on the entire justice system. “It’s basically bringing down the integrity of all the district attorneys’ offices,” she said. In Texas, Ridolfi said, she found only one instance in which a prosecutor was publicly disciplined, and it took place before the time period her group studied. Terry McEachern, who prosecuted the infamous Tulia drug cases in which black defendants were convicted of drug charges concocted by a rogue investigator, received a two-year probated suspension of his law license in 2005 and a $6,225 fine.
Morton and his lawyers have said that they hope his case will prompt lawmakers and the State Bar of Texas to implement policies that hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct. Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said prosecutors are also discussing the issue of misconduct but have not reached a consensus about the scope of the problem or potential remedies. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said most prosecutors seek to do justice, but that when they make mistakes, there ought to be consequences. “Society entrusts prosecutors with tremendous power in order to provide justice,” Ellis said in an email. “Yet that tremendous power cannot go unchecked, which is what seems to be the case all too often.”
Indeed. Senator Ellis is right but perhaps understated. We trust our justice system to get it right. To be free from bias and to seek the truth but what we have is a win at all costs, tough on crime mantra that has weighted our system for justice heavily in favor of the prosecution. Of the thousands of cases handled in places like Harris County and Dallas County, I cannot fathom how many people are possibly coerced into signing plea deals that let shady prosecutors off the hook. Sometimes, this has allowed the real perpetrators of horrible crimes to remain free to commit other crimes. For every exoneration, someone else is guilty.