I never met Pete Shellem. I hadn't heard of him until reading his obituary last week through a link on the blog of New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield. But I wish I'd had a drink with the guy.
In an age when journalism has been inflicted not only by ballyhooed budget woes and challenges from new media, but also a glut of dubious trend stories, horserace political coverage, and endless navel-gazing about the state of the profession, Shellem merely freed four wrongly convicted people from prison in a period of 10 years with his reporting. Oh, and in the 1990s he also brought down a Pennsylvania state attorney general in a mail fraud investigation. Today that fallen attorney general, Ernie Preate, Jr., has only praise for Shellem. Shellem died unexpectedly last week at age 49.
Described by a former colleague in a 2007 American Journalism Review profile as a "B-movie reporter—you know, a chain-smoking tough guy who meets his sources in bars and operates around the edges," Shellem spent two decades covering the courts for the Harrisburg Patriot-News. In the accounts of his passing, he's described by colleagues and friends as the sort of reporter who read court transcripts, trial briefs, and lab reports for fun, whose office was filled with phone numbers scrawled on bar napkins and letters from desperate convicts proclaiming their innocence. Between filing stories about murder trials and covering day-to-day court operations, Shellem developed and worked sources in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system. He also developed an eye for spotting irregularities in police reports, crime lab reports, witness statements, and other court documents. That's when he started helping innocent people get out of jail.
The first person Shellem's reporting freed from prison was Patricia Carbone. Carbone told police she'd been abducted by a man named Jerome Lint, who Carbone says also attempted to rape her. Carbone pulled a knife from her purse, and stabbed and killed Lint. Prosecutors didn't believe Carbone's story. She was tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. In his reporting, Shellem found another woman who had also been assaulted by Lint. That led prosecutors to reopen Carbone's case, and her eventual release from prison in 1998. Shellem's reporting also tore holes in the state's case against Steve Crawford, who was convicted of killing a friend at age 14. He spent 28 years in prison. Shellem found new evidence supporting Crawford's innocence, including evidence that a state crime lab report had been altered to incriminate Crawford. Crawford too was eventually released.
In helping free Barry Laughman, a mentally-retarded man convicted of killing an 84-year-old woman, Shellem tracked DNA in the case all the way to Leipzig, Germany. Laughman was convicted in 1988, before modern DNA testing. Even Laughman's own defense team had no idea what happened to the biological evidence taken from the crime scene, nor did they understand that locating the evidence could definitively establish their client's guilt or innocence. Shellem tracked the evidence to the then-Penn State University professor who analyzed it for Laughman's trial, but had since moved to Germany. He had taken the evidence with him. When tested, it showed Laughman was not the man who committed the rape.
Finally there's David Gladden, who was convicted of assaulting, murdering, and then setting fire to an elderly woman in 1995. In 2006, based solely on his own reputation for exposing injustice, Shellem was able to convince Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico, Jr. to reopen the case. Shellem then showed not only that an informant in the case had lied (the informant later recanted his testimony), but that the victim lived in the same building as a serial killer who killed his victims in the very same manner the woman had been murdered. Gladden was released. (Read Shellem's cutting expose on Gladden's case here.)
Preate, the former attorney general who did a year in prison because of Shellem's reporting in the mid-1990s, now works for a prison reform organization. He describes Shellem as a "one-man Innocence Project."
"He busted my ass . . . 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," Preate says. Quoted in his own paper, Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse put Preate's praise of Shellem in perspective. "How many journalists gain the admiration not only of those they help but of those they expose?"
In the age of fluffy politician profiles, moral-panic inducing magazine covers that spawn ill-considered legislation, and multi-part investigative series that practically scream out for handing more power over to government, Shellem was motivated by an understanding of the free press' most important responsibility: to check the coercive power of the state. "I was always taught that reporters are supposed to be government watchdogs," Shellem told Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mario Cattabiani, who wrote the 2007 profile of Shellem in the American Journalism Review. "The most drastic thing the government can do to an individual is charge them with a crime and send them to jail. 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."
"If people need to be embarrassed into doing the right thing," Shellem added, "I'm happy to oblige them."
Shellem's death wasn't reported outside of Pennsylvania. In fact, his work, incredible as it was, rarely made it outside the state. As his editor John Kirkpatrick told Cattabani, if Shellem had worked for the Washington Post, he'd have been famous. He'd have a deskful of awards and a commenting gig on MSNBC. But then, he'd no longer have been stalking the halls of Pennsylvania courthouses, either. "He doesn't care about that," Kirkpatrick said in 2007, explaining Shellem's desire to stay in Harrisburg. "He cares about righting these wrongs."
I don't particularly know or care what journalism—as defined by those pontificating on the future of the profession—needs right now. But society needs more Pete Shellems. Because there's a seemingly endless supply of people in power in need of embarrassment.
Rest in peace.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.