Death of a Watchdog

Pete Shellem, crime reporter


Pete Shellem, crime reporter

I never met Pete Shellem. I hadn't even heard of him before I read his obituary in November. But I wish I'd had a drink with the guy. In an age when journalism has been plagued by budget woes, dubious trend stories, and endless navel gazing about the state of the profession, Shellem merely helped free four wrongly convicted people from prison in a period of 10 years. In the 1990s his reporting also caught a prominent Pennsylvania politician in a corruption scandal, revealing that Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr. had solicited and then failed to report $40,000 in campaign contributions; Preate eventually served 14 months on mail fraud charges.

Shellem killed himself in October. He was 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, colleagues and friends describe him 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 irregularities in police 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 had told police she'd been abducted by a man named Jerome Lint, who attempted to rape her. Carbone then pulled a knife from her purse and stabbed Lint to death. Prosecutors didn't believe her story. She was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But Shellem looked into Carbone's claims, and found another woman who had also been assaulted by Lint. That discovery led prosecutors to reopen Carbone's case. She was released from prison in 1998.

Shellem's reporting also tore holes in the state's case against Steve Crawford, who spent 28 years in prison after he was convicted of killing a friend at age 14. Shellem found new evidence supporting Crawford's innocence, including indications that a state crime lab report had been altered to incriminate him. In 1998 Crawford too was released.

Barry Laughman, a mentally retarded man, was convicted of killing an 84-year-old woman in 1988, before modern DNA testing had emerged. Laughman's attorneys 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. In 2003 Shellem tracked the evidence to the DNA specialist who had analyzed it for Laughman's trial; he had been based at Penn State at the time but had since moved to Leipzig, Germany, taking 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, thanks to the reputation he had earned for exposing injustice, Shellem was able to convince Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. to reopen Gladden's case. Shellem then showed not only that an informant in the trial 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 same manner the woman had been murdered. Gladden too was released.

Preate, the corrupt attorney general who served a year in prison because of Shellem's investigation in the mid-1990s, now works for a prison reform organization. Today he has only praise for the guy who brought him down, describing Shellem as a "one-man Innocence Project."

"He busted my ass," Preate says. "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." In the Patriot-News, Shellem's paper, Executive Editor David Newhouse put Preate's praise of the reporter in perspective: "How many journalists gain the admiration not only of those they help but of those they expose?"

In an era of fluffy politician profiles, sloppily reported features driven by moral panics, and investigative series that scream for handing more power over to the government, Shellem was motivated by his understanding of the free press's 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 Mario Cattabiani, the man who profiled him for 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 widely reported outside of Pennsylvania. In fact, his work, impressive as it was, rarely made a splash outside the state. As his editor John Kirkpatrick told Cattabiani, 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 would no longer have been stalking the halls of Pennsylvania courthouses. "He doesn't care about" honors and fame, Kirkpatrick said in 2007. "He cares about righting these wrongs."

I don't know or really 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 seems to be an endless supply of people in power who need embarrassing.