The “Jailed by Mistake” project published last fall by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch fall had all the earmarks of enterprising journalism in the public interest, says the Gateway Journalism Review. The series grew out of a letter prisoner Dwayne A. Jackson sent the newspaper complaining he had spent three months in jail after St. Louis police picked him up on criminal charges against another Dwayne A. Jackson. After reporting on similar cases, the Post-Dispatch concluded that 100 people had been arrested in error over the past seven years and spent a collective 2,000 days in jail. In many instances, one family member with criminal trouble would use the identity of another family member or a friend. The aliases resulted in a welter of police and court records that were hard for police, prosecutors, judges and reporters to sort out.
Then Eddie Roth, a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer who went to work for Mayor Francis Slay, meticulously documented what he thinks were mistakes in the series about mistakes. Roth published criticisms on his Facebook page running longer than the original series. The Post-Dispatch at first stood by its stories. Then, after Gateway Journalism Review published a story about Roth's questions, the paper acknowledged an error. Cortez Cooper, whom the paper had cited prominently for having served 36 days in jail for a charge against his brother, turned out not to have served time. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce joined the criticism. After auditing 10 percent of the paper's 100 cases, she concluded that it had overstated the days wrongfully served in jail by 550. The Gateway Journalism Review tries to untangle the mess.