Criminal Justice

Death of a Watchdog

Pete Shellem, RIP.

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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.

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  1. I knew you had it in you Radley. This is an 11.

  2. Screenplay, baby.

  3. The comment about the utility of this kind of reporting for society vs. for “journalism” is dead on. There was a time the importance of hard-hitting journalism to our society was understood. Now the field is largely just a useless exercise in professional solipsism.

  4. Sucks for those wrongly convicted whose cases he might have been working on when he passed. I hope he was mentoring someone to take over the cause.

  5. Great story Balko, but in the last paragraph you call him David Shellems which doesn’t seem to be correct.

    1. Shellems being the plural for Shellem, the wording is correct there.

      1. Yeah, but when the guy’s first name is Pete then you’ve got an issue.

  6. Nice work, Radley. I’m glad Shellem’s work is getting some props, at least here.

  7. Because there’s a seemingly endless supply of people in power in need of embarrassment.

    You said it, brother.

  8. Also, the reason Shellem died “unexpectedly” is that he apparently committed suicide. a guy like Shellem didn’t have much use for euphemisms and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind us laying the unvarnished facts on the line.

  9. I was expecting to learn that he was shot on a “mistaken” drug raid, what with who was reporting it and all.

    Damned shame this guy didn’t get the national recognition he deserved. If nothing points out the uselessness of the major media sources today, that fact does.

    1. How did he die? The news story just says “unexpectedly”.

      1. A bizarre gardening accident.

  10. Did you guys ever cover the 2007 shooting death of Oakland Post reporter Chauncey Bailey?

  11. Bah! I’ll bet he didn’t do any reporting on Princess Di or Whacko Jacko, both of whom were on the morning TV news today.

  12. It’s a damned shame that Princess Di didn’t mate with Jacko before their unfortunate demises.

    1. That is one of the few facts that make me consider the possibility of a loving God.

      1. or at least a God who isn’t too fucking strange

  13. Diko?

  14. Speaking of journalism and editing, Shellem didn’t die unexpectedly. We all expect to die. Correct usage is “suddenly.”

    (former copyeditor now working as a web developer after numerous layoffs)

  15. Much of the worth we have today is due to unrecognized people like Shellem.

    RIP.

    Thank you for posting this.

  16. Incredible memorial to an apparently incredible guy. I’m so glad to know Shellem was around and recently so.

  17. Thanks for this article about a TRUE working class hero.

  18. Radley, thank you for creating this obituary… I had never heard of him and now I admire him immensely.
    I wish bloggers would follow this example, go into the bars and dig into files, review records… oh, wait, I mean I wish more journalists would do that….

  19. As a close friend of Pete, thanks very much for this. He was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and it’s great to see him get props from people he never knew. And I can tell you firsthand, there is /no one/ you’d rather have a drink with than Pete.
    And ahem, Citizen Nothing, you are spot-on about Pete wanting the circumstances of his death reported fully and accurately. One of the things Pete despised most was watered-down news and sugar-coating ugly truths. Yes, he killed himself. No, it doesn’t diminish what he did.
    Next time at the Bunker, Cit. 0, I’m buying you a Stoli Orange, rocks. Pete’s drink. It’s a small world after all…

  20. Hopefully he did commit suicide, judging from his accomplishments he likely had a few enemies. I’m not saying that is the case, or even suggesting that it’s likely, just examining possibilities.

    If he did indeed check out on his own I have no problem with that. Who are any of us, or anyone else, to think we have the right to tell someone “no, you can not go.”

    If that sounds heartless I can assure you that it’s the opposite, my concern for others that motivates me. The worst thing a human can endure is loss of freedom, especially over one’s self.

    Personally, I had not heard of him until I heard about him from Radley Balko, but I’d say we were lucky to have Pete Shellem for the time we did.

    If we’d had more like him maybe we wouldn’t have made a near full circle almost back to where we came from, subjects of our rulers existing on their earth and enjoying selected “privileges,” including time not spent in a prison cell, only because of their “generosity” and “benevolence.”

    R.I.P., Mr. Shellem

  21. BTW before it slips my mind again, I’d like to express my appreciation to Radley Balko for his work.

    We’ll never really know the outcome of his efforts, or those of Pete Shellem, or others [far too few] like them. There’s just no way to quantify results like how many weren’t served injustice solely because those who would’ve done so were aware of the watchdog’s presence, for example. It would be my guess that what we can’t know is the larger part, though.

    Having read many of his articles it’s clear Mr. Balko, is no idiot, in fact he’s obviously the opposite. So little doubt remains that he had to know, in advance that doing what he does, he would make some enemies who could hardly be considered lightweights. It takes some serious balls to go against that grain. To put oneself in the Goliath’s face on behalf of strangers out of a sense of right is one of the most admirable acts I can think of.

    My hat is off to you Mr. Balko, you have my respect, not many have.

  22. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets..

  23. ..in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  24. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  25. Radley, thank you for creating this obituary… I had never heard of him and now I admire him immensely.
    I wish bloggers would follow this example, go into the bars and dig into files, review records… oh, wait, I mean I wish more journalists would do that….

  26. I had a misdemeanor d be for the 96 gun law now i will be forced to sell my bussines after 35 years auto salvage yard to abide the law .Because of shells and guns in alot of them in my possesion Clean Record Since.

  27. If people need to be embarrassed into doing the right thing,” Shellem added, “I’m happy to oblige them.

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