From AJR, April/May 2007
June/July Preview » Pete Shellem of Harrisburg ’s Patriot-News has freed four people from jail through dogged, old-fashioned reporting.
By Mario Cattabiani
Combined, they had spent 66 years in jail. All were destined to die in a prison system that ignored their pleas of innocence--until Pete Shellem started digging.
Since 1998, investigative series by Shellem, a longtime reporter for the Patriot-News of Harrisburg , Pennsylvania , have highlighted grave flaws with those homicide convictions that eventually prompted the state to set all four people free.
At 46, Shellem is a journalistic throwback: a chain-smoking, B-movie reporter who meets sources in bars and immerses himself in his subject. He tirelessly pores over court files searching for nuggets overlooked, in some cases, even by defense lawyers: Altered lab reports. A police informant with a shady past. A previously unknown witness.
In one case, Shellem even tracked down long-forgotten DNA samples preserved for years in a professor's refrigerator in Leipzig , Germany .
"He is a one-man Innocence Project," says former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate. "The idea that a single, solitary newspaper reporter can accomplish all this is a remarkable story." And that's from a public official embarrassed by Shellem's reporting. But more about that later.
To Gladden--a retarded man who was released in February after spending a dozen years in prison--Shellem is the journalistic version of "Matlock." "He gets out and finds out what is really going on in this community," says Gladden. "He digs and digs and digs for the truth. Man, this guy is a thorn in somebody's side. But he's a great man to me."
No one keeps records on such things, but experts on journalism and the wrongly convicted cannot think of a present-day reporter who by himself has compiled a résumé of freed prisoners as thick as Shellem's. And he's done it while maintaining a full-time courts beat.
"I was always taught that reporters are supposed to be government watchdogs. The most drastic thing the government can do to an individual is charge them with a crime and send them to jail," says Shellem, a Temple University grad who has spent the past 21 years with the Patriot-News. "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."
Despite his success, Shellem is virtually unknown outside Pennsylvania . "If Pete worked at a larger paper, say the Washington Post, and did what he did, everyone would know about him; he would be a hero, and everyone would be talking about him," says John Kirkpatrick, editor and publisher of the Patriot-News, a 100,000-circulation daily in central Pennsylvania . "But he doesn't care about that. He cares about righting these wrongs."
Shellem is more Mickey Spillane than Brian Williams. Some cops tell him he's missed his calling: He should have a detective's badge. This is a guy who, by his own account, reads "police manuals, court transcripts and opinions for entertainment."
He often wears gray hooded sweatshirts, giving him a Unabomber look. He rarely misses a workweek happy hour--that's where some of his best work originates--and knows most bartenders in Pennsylvania 's capital city by name. When the city desk needs to find him for a question on a story, they know where to look--the Glass Lounge, the Gingerbread Man or any number of other taverns in town.
"I don't take this stuff lightly, and I'm not the type that believes every con that comes along," says Shellem. Sometimes, his stories emerge from tips from private investigators working for the defense. Other times, it's simply a nagging sense, honed by years as a courts reporter, that something just isn't right. "But in these cases, I don't start writing until I'm sure I'm right, and if people need to be embarrassed into doing the right thing, I'm happy to oblige them."
Consider a 1998 headline on one of Shellem's projects: "Why is this woman still in prison?"
"Me and my family were wondering that question for years, and no one listened," says Patricia A. Carbone. "Pete got that question out there."
On June 9, 1984, a car pulled alongside Carbone as she walked to a bar in Somerset County . The driver allegedly pulled her into the car, drove down an abandoned street and tried to rape her. She escaped from the car, but the man caught her. She grabbed a knife from her purse and fatally stabbed him before fleeing.
Police and prosecutors didn't believe her story. Neither did a jury. She rejected an offer to plead guilty to manslaughter, was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Fourteen years later, Shellem reported about another woman, an off-duty police officer who said she had been grabbed by the same man outside another bar just weeks before he was killed. She so feared for her safety that she pulled a pistol to fend him off, but she didn't press charges.
The officer's story, which the trial judge barred the jury from hearing, ate away at the credibility of the man whom family members insisted never touched alcohol and never set foot in a bar. Prosecutors reexamined the case after Shellem's article appeared and allowed Carbone to plead guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree murder. Although her attorneys had argued self-defense, she took the deal and was released based on time already served.
"If it weren't for Pete, I really, truly believe I would still be inside those horrible, horrible prison walls," says Carbone. "He is a blessing from God. He was the answer to my prayers."
Barry Laughman, a man with an IQ of about 70 who rode his bike to work because he couldn't pass his driver's exam, was convicted in 1988 of raping and killing a distant relative known as Aunt Edna.
Shellem's 2003 series on the case pointed out inconsistencies, including a confession that appeared to be coerced and semen found at the scene that didn't match Laughman's blood type. But the real break in the case came in the form of 18 swabs and six microscope slides taken from fluids in Edna Laughman's body.
At the time of the original trial, there wasn't enough DNA to draw any conclusions. But as science improved, there was hope that those samples could yield results. There was just one problem. No one knew where the samples had gone.
After persistent questioning of defense lawyers, who hadn't realized the value of the samples, Shellem traced them to a former anthropology professor at Penn State University who initially had analyzed them for DNA. The professor later moved to Germany and took the samples with him. They proved Laughman was not the killer, and he was freed in 2003.
"I believe Laughman would have served the rest of his natural life in jail for a murder he did not commit if not for Pete Shellem," says William C. Costopoulos, an attorney who is representing Laughman in a wrongful imprisonment civil suit.
In 1970, when Steven Crawford was 14, he allegedly bludgeoned a childhood friend to death with a hammer.
In 2001, Shellem reported about a briefcase of a former detective on the case discarded with the trash. That briefcase--picked up from the curbside by neighborhood kids and eventually confiscated by local police--would help set Crawford free.
It contained the original lab reports about a palm print lifted from the side of a car at the crime scene--the key evidence against Crawford. Months later, Shellem discovered that authorities had built their case against Crawford using a report altered by a state police chemist, not the original one that supported the defense case that the print was not connected to the murder.
"Pete forced us to take a look at really important parts of this case. There were lawyers who had looked at it for 20 years who hadn't," says Dauphin County District Attorney Edward Marsico. Marsico says he was later convinced, not of Crawford's innocence, but that he did not receive a fair trail. Instead of trying him again, Marsico decided to support Crawford's release from jail. He already had served 28 years.
"There was very little hope for me. I was relying on the criminal justice system that had been failing me for 28 years until he came along," Crawford says of Shellem. "He has a pit bull's tenacity. When he grabs hold of something, he doesn't let go until he finds the truth."
Last year, Shellem approached Marsico, asking the DA to open his file--complete with non-public details--on another case, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. David Gladden. "I trusted him enough to do that," says Marsico. "Pete is at a stage where, because of his reputation, I didn't have a problem with it. I can't think of any other reporter I would do that for."
Gladden was convicted in 1995 of killing and setting fire to an elderly woman in Harrisburg . Marsico says it was Shellem who brought him a key fact in the case: A serial killer lived in the same building as M. Geneva Long, whom Gladden was convicted of murdering. That man had preyed on elderly women, sexually assaulting them and setting fire to one to co
ver up the crime--facts identical to the crime Gladden had supposedly committed.
Marsico, as an assistant district attorney, had prosecuted the other man and was familiar with his MO. But he never put two and two together. "My jaw dropped. I know it's a cliché, but it did," Marsico says. "That was enough to raise concerns. As a result of Pete, we took a fresh look at the case."
Shellem also sought out the only eyewitness, who had told authorities he and Gladden had burglarized Long's apartment and that he watched as Gladden choked her. Police had believed the eyewitness even though he gave the wrong location of the murder and couldn't even say whether the victim was black or white. In an interview with Shellem, the man recanted the story and said he had been coerced into confessing to his role in the crime.
All Ellen Pleasant, 93, cared about was living long enough to see Gladden, her grandson, walk from jail a free man. It happened on February 16. "Pete is a God-sent man to us," says Pleasant. "He's part of our family now."
A word to the wise: Don't mess with Shellem's bartenders, and never, ever call any of them Fatso. Several state legislators learned that the hard way.
After a session of the state House of Representatives in 2002, a group of lawmakers went barhopping in Harrisburg . They entered one of Shellem's favorite haunts, some with drinks already in hand. They were obnoxious, and, when a bartender told them they couldn't smoke cigars or leave with their drinks, they insulted her.
In that episode, Shellem saw a story.
He went on to expose a little-known provision in state law: In many instances, state lawmakers are immune from arrest during legislative sessions. City police were powerless to cite the legislators, but at least one was embarrassed publicly by Shellem for his rude ways.
"I don't want to lead anyone to believe I go to bars only to get stories, although it would be nice if my editors did," says Shellem. "In fact, sometimes I go to places to get away from people trying to pitch me stories. But I often run the stories by people, regular people, to see what they think."
Shellem "comes across as B-movie reporter--you know, a chain-smoking tough guy who meets his sources in bars and operates around the edges. But, in the end, he gets pissed off about these people locked up," says Pete Shelly, a former colleague and now a Harrisburg public relations consultant. "The guy has a heart of gold and is a softie deep down. If you print this, he'll kill me--or investigate me--but it's the truth."
Bill Moushey has a tip for Hollywood . "What he's done is a movie. It's a damn movie," says Moushey, one of the few other reporters in the nation who specializes in trying to prove innocence or prosecutorial misconduct. "The idea that Pete has done this by himself, I can't imagine anyone else doing that. He has accomplished more than anyone."
Getting someone out of jail is not easy work, says Moushey, who in 2001 formed the Innocence Institute of Point Park University in Pittsburgh . By special arrangement, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publishes his investigative projects. Besides the reams of records, there is the psychological toll. "You put yourself in a position that everyone and their brother wants to take a shot at you," Moushey says.
The cops hate you. The prosecutors hate you. Families of the victims all hate you. After all, they had closure. Someone is paying for the crime, and along comes a reporter trying to take all that away. "Then you start telling people black is white, it raises all kinds of issues," Moushey says.
But, as Shellem has proved, you can win people over. Even a man whom Shellem helped put in jail is now a fan.
In 1994, Preate, then Pennsylvania 's attorney general, was considered the front-runner for governor. But Shellem, along with Shelly, tirelessly pursued allegations that Preate accepted illegal campaign contributions in exchange for soft treatment from his office. The coverage reopened a dormant federal investigation into Preate, who at the time ripped the paper for what he called a salacious witch hunt.
"He busted my ass. But he was just doing his job," says Preate, who, after serving a one-year jail term for campaign-related mail fraud, has devoted his law practice to prison- reform issues. "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."
After every investigative series, without fail, Shellem is inundated. His phone rings incessantly, and the mail, postmarked from state correctional facilities, starts piling up. Everyone is innocent, and they all want his help proving it.
Since Gladden's February release, Shellem estimates he has received several hundred calls and letters. He tries to take at least a cursory look at all of them. Most of the time, he says, "there's a pretty obvious hook that explains why the person was convicted."
Of the lot, Shellem has set aside three or four that he believes have potential. Among them is perhaps his next project, his fifth freed inmate. "I know sooner or later," Shellem says, "I'm going to find another one that makes me sit back and say 'What the hell?'"
Mario F. Cattabiani (email@example.com) covers Harrisburg for the Philadelphia Inquirer.