Investigations of US Coast Guard, MS-13 Win John Jay Justice Reporting Awards

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Seth Freed Wessler

Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations, and Hannah Dreier of ProPublica are the winners of the 14th annual John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim 2019 Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting, Karol V. Mason, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, announced Monday.

“The enterprise and hard work of these journalists paid off with some powerful criminal justice stories,” said President Mason. “Independent reporters and the thorough investigations they conduct are a cornerstone in protecting the freedoms and rights of all Americans.

“In addition, these Harry Frank Guggenheim Award winners make clear the continuing importance of media in helping Americans understand today’s criminal justice challenges.”

The prizes, administered by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), publisher of The Crime Report, recognize the previous year’s best print and online justice reporting in a U.S.-based media outlet between November 2017 and October 2018. Winning entries in each of the two categories share a cash award of $1,500 and a plaque. Runners-up (see below) receive certificates of Honorable Mention.

See videos of winners’ acceptance remarks below.

The 2019 Winners:

 Seth Freed Wessler

floating guantanamos

Courtesy New York Times

Seth Freed Wessler, reporting for Type Investigations (formerly The Investigative Fund) has won the 2019 John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Single-Story Category) for “The Coast Guard’s Floating Guantánamos,” an investigation of the little-known practice of detaining low-level drug smugglers under reportedly inhumane conditions on U.S. Coast Guard cutters offshore. His reporting was originally published by The New York Times Magazine and then amplified with new reporting in collaboration with producer Kristin Nelson and documentary editor Joan Webber of The Current on CBC, Canada’s national broadcasting network.

Wessler’s year-long investigation involved culling thousands of pages of court filings and interviewing or corresponding with more than two dozen former detainees in U.S. prisons and in Ecuador. The result was “an entirely original and shocking story of government overreach,” commented one of this year’s jurors. Editor Esther Kaplan said the Coast Guard, “seemingly” in response to Wessler’s reporting, has since proposed using a dedicated prison ship to hold detainees, and she noted Canada has launched an investigation into allegations of mistreatment.

Watch Seth’s remarks here.

Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier of ProPublica won the 2019 John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Series Category) for her multi-part and multi-media investigation of flawed federal and local law enforcement practices in the struggle against the notorious MS-13 gang. Her first story, “A Betrayal,” published in collaboration with New York magazine, chronicled the tragedy of Henry, a teenager who had helped police arrest fellow gang members only to have his life endangered when law enforcement turned over his file to immigration authorities.

Hannah Dreier

Hannah Dreier

A second story, “The Disappeared,” in partnership with Newsday and This American Life, described the failure by local law enforcement to adequately investigate the murder by the gang of 15-year-old Miguel. Both cases illustrated the “carelessness and indifference” of authorities in dealing with the casualties of America’s stepped-up campaign against MS-13, said ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg in his nomination letter.

Both stores can be downloaded here.

Dreier’s articles had “extraordinary impact,” Engelberg added, noting that the Suffolk County, N.Y., police had launched an investigation into the mishandling of the investigations into the deaths of Miguel and others. “Hundreds of readers reached out to Henry offering jobs and a home…the Department of Homeland Security opened a civil rights investigation, and ICE said it would stop creating detailed gang memos.”

Watch Hannah’s remarks here.


Two compelling investigative pieces from The Marshall Project (TMP) tied for this year’s Runner-Up place in the single-story category

 Alysia Santo was honored for a path-breaking year-long investigation into the operation of state victim compensation funds, and Joseph Neff earned the award for his investigation into the wrongful conviction, exoneration—and its tragic aftermath—of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled half-brothers found innocent of a rape-murder charge after spending 30 years on North Carolina’s Death Row.

Alysia Santo
Alysia Santo

Alysia Santo

Alysia Santo’s story, “The Victims Who Don’t Count,” was published in USA Today and reprinted in 20 regional newspapers; and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting broadcast a 25-minute radio story on 460 public radio stations. Her exposé “showed for the first time that the rules governing the disbursement of victim’s compensation disproportionately hurt black crime victims,” TMP Editor Bill Keller said in his nomination letter.

Joseph Neff

Joseph Neff’s story, “The Price of Innocence,” which also appeared in The New York Times, explored how the two brothers were exploited by lawyers and supposed advocates after they were released.

Joseph Neff

Joseph Neff

Follow-ups on the story by WRAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham, helped draw attention to their plight and led to an investigation by the North Carolina State Bar.

Not only did Neff’s reporting bring to light “one of the worst” examples of exoneree exploitation, but it highlighted a previously un-reported nationwide issue, Keller said: “Few states offer any post-release services or protection to the innocent, (and) those with disabilities or dysfunctional families shouldn’t have to rely on a diligent reporter to obtain the protection they need.”

Madeleine Baran, et al.

A team of investigative reporters and producers at American Public Media Reports was awarded the Runner-Up prize in the Series Category for their 11-episode project investigating the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man in Mississippi who is on Death Row for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. Based in Mississippi for nearly a year, the team produced their series for the second season of “In the Dark,” revealing misconduct by the local district attorney, as well as a 25-year pattern of malfeasance that included systematically striking African Americans from jury trials.

Madeline Baran

Madeleine Baran

“Our reporting reached millions of people and sparked conversations about the power of prosecutors, and the ways in which prosecutors can abuse that power,” wrote APM Reports editor Catherine Winter in her nomination letter, noting that the “In the Dark” podcasts have been downloaded by more than 31 million people. APM reporter Madeleine Baran will receive the Honorable Mention certificate in the name of APM’s 10-person reporting team.

 Prize Jury

 The jurors for this year’s prize were:

  • Alexa Capeloto, Associate Professor, John Jay College
  • Joe Domanick, Associate Director, CMCJ;
  • Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists;
  • Ann Givens, of The Trace;
  • Katti Gray, contributing editor, The Crime Report;
  • Mark Obbie, a criminal justice writer and former executive editor of American Lawyer; and
  • Spencer Woodman of The Chicago Reader (co-winner of the 2018 Journalism Prize in the Single-Story Category) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Wren Longno served as Administrator of this year’s awards.

Dinner Feb 21

The awards will be presented February 21, 2019 at a dinner in New York City, held in conjunction with the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

The dinner will also honor pioneer podcasters Sarah Koenig of Serial and Brittany Packnett of Pod Save the People as this year’s “Justice Media Trailblazers.”

Reservations for the dinner can be made here.

The awards will be presented by John Jay President Karol Mason, Serial co-producer Julie Snyder, Brooklyn NY activist Blair Imani, and emcee Errol Louis of NY1.

John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium

The awards dinner is the cornerstone event of the 14th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City February 21-22, 2019.

The symposium, Violence in America: Myth and Reality, will examine challenges of the changing environment for criminal justice reform in 2019.

Speakers include:

  • George Gascon, San Francisco District Attorney;
  • The Hon. Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey Attorney General;
  • Sen. Larry Obhof, President, Ohio State Senate;
  • Daniel Isom, former St. Louis police chief;
  • Stephanie Ueberall, director of the Violence Prevention Program of the NYC Citizens Crime Commission; and
  • Prof. Issa Kohler-Hausmann, Yale Law School, author of “Misdemeanorland.”

The symposium, administered by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College (publisher of The Crime Report) is the only national gathering that brings together journalists, legislators, policymakers, scholars and practitioners for candid on-the-record discussions on emerging issues of U.S. criminal justice. The conference is open to the public, but a one-time fee of $25 is required for attendance at the on-the-record symposium.

For a full list of speakers, and to register for the conference, please click here

Overall support for the conference and fellowships comes from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and others.


Twenty-nine U.S. journalists from print, online and broadcast outlets have also been awarded Reporting Fellowships to attend the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, including five who have received special investigative fellowships from the Quattrone Center on the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for projects examining systemic issues in the justice system.

The unique fellowships are aimed at encouraging and promoting top-quality journalism on criminal justice. The Fellows were selected from a wide pool of applicants based on editors’ recommendations, and on investigative reporting projects underway or in the planning stage.

A full list of the John Jay/Guggenheim and Quattrone Reporting Fellows is below.


 (in Alphabetical Order)

 Ron Berler, freelance
Deven Clarke,
KSAT News12
Rachel de Leon,
Ryan Denham,
Tim Eigo,
Arizona Attorney
Karl Etters, Tallahassee Democrat
Andrew Ford, USA Today Network
Dan Glaun, MassLive
Megan Guza,
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Gary Harki, Virginian Pilot
Emily Harris, Reveal/CIR
Katie Moore,
Topeka Capital Journal
Patricia Murphy,
KUOW Seattle
Tom Olsen,
Duluth News-Tribune 
Julie Reynolds Martinez, Voices of Monterrey Bay
Kayla Rivera, freelance
Elise Schmelzer,
Denver Post
Frank Schultz,
Janesville Gazette
Skyler Swisher,
South Fla Sun Sentinel
Almudena Toral,
Kathryn Varn,
Tampa Bay Times
Josh Vaughn, The Sentinel
Paula Ward.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Charlotte West,


 (in Alphabetical Order)

Josh Brodesky, San Antonio Exp News
Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Sainato,
freelance/The Guardian
Mary Sanchez, Flatland
Olivia P. Tallet, Houston Chronicle

One thought on “Investigations of US Coast Guard, MS-13 Win John Jay Justice Reporting Awards

  1. There is little if any incentive for prosecutors to seek the truth. Virtually all incentive is to get convictions. So many incidents of prosecutors wilfully concealing information that favors the accused have come to light that it gives the appearance that this is standard practice.
    So many times when evidence favoring the accused is discovered, the prosecutor will exhaust every legal shenanigan to suppress that evidence. Having to fight the prosecutor for ten years to get DNA evidence admitted is ridiculously unjust.

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