Above, left to right: Justice Project team members Brittany Hale, Joanna Sappenfield, Eva Revear, Danielle Burch, and Chelsea Vitone.
A group of student journalists at the UW Tacoma Ledger has been recognized with a national award by the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s “most broad-based” journalism organization with nearly 10,000 professional-journalist members. The students were selected to receive SPJ’s Mark of Excellence Award for their series, “Simple Justice.” They will be acknowledged in September at the Excellence in Journalism 2015 Conference for their entry in the category for in-depth reporting at a small (1-9,999) university.
The Justice Project—the group at The Ledger that produced “Simple Justice”— began last summer, when five UW Tacoma students decided to try something that hadn’t been done before within the university. They took up an old murder case, an incident that happened in Tacoma in 2006, dusted off the case files and transcripts, and got to reading over 2,500 pages of police and court documents. Their goal: to bring attention to a case in which there was the possibility of a wrongful conviction.
The case they chose was the murder of Julius Williams, who was found shot to death on Sept. 8th, 2006 on a sidewalk near Bryant Elementary School. These students had some extraordinary work in store for them, including dozens of interviews and trips to the local prison.
Niki Reading, student publication manager at UW Tacoma since 2007, was the catalyst for the project. She had been inspired by hearing of a similar immersion in investigative journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Now, with the conclusion of “Simple Justice” and the achievement of a national award, Reading says, “I'm proud of these students' work and hope that this award brings attention to the Williams case. It's troubling that the conviction was based largely on the testimony of one eyewitness who was both drunk and high at the time he says he witnessed the crime, and only spoke to police a month after the murder -- and has since changed key details of his story.“
The students who made up the Justice Project are Brittany Hale, Danielle Burch, Chelsea Vitone, Eva Revear and Joanna Sappenfield. They come from diverse backgrounds and majors, each bringing a unique perspective to the project. The diversity in the group allowed them not only to bring different mindsets to the project, but to take different lessons away. Their individual experiences meant something different to each of them, one project supplying all of them with something they could take forward.
The Justice Project was something Brittany Hale (Politics, Philosophy & Economics) knew she wanted to be involved in right away, “I never thought I would have an opportunity to do something like this,” she says. Near the end of spring term 2014, Niki Reading contacted her, asking if she’d be interested.
“I just said, ‘Heck yes! I would love to do that; count me in.’ The way that she described it was so interesting, and it’s lived up to all my expectations.”
This experience has changed the way she looks at the justice system and how it treats people from different backgrounds. “Yes we’re different,” she says, “but we all deserve the same justice.”
After graduation, Hale hopes to go on to earn her master’s degree. “I know that I want to work in state government,” Hale says. “I’d like to work in the administration side... I’m interested in making sure government programs are working for people.”
Danielle Burch (Ethnic, Gender & Labor Studies) says she took on the challenge of the Justice Project because she thought she could offer a unique perspective to the group through the eyes of education. “I thought I needed to challenge myself and do something outside of my comfort zone, and I thought that because of my major, maybe I would have a different perspective.” she says.
Once Burch got fully conversant with the massive amount of material in the case record, she interviewed the man that had been convicted of Williams’ murder, Irvin Carter, Jr. She learned that “things are really terrifying until you try them. I didn’t go out and do a lot of canvassing and interviews during the project, so going to speak to Carter in prison--for me, that was a big deal! And by the end of it I was asking hard-hitting questions.”
When she came to the Ledger initially, Burch wanted to write, though the paper was more in need of her artistic skills; she was also interested in design. Her experience at the Ledger, working with the design and layout of the paper, and in the Justice Project has shown her that her two areas of interest can intermingle. “There could be a career out there that meshes my design side and my social justice side.”
As someone looking to go into journalism, Chelsea Vitone (Writing Studies, Communications) thought the Justice Project would be a unique opportunity to advance her journalism skills.
She also thought that it could possibly blend her major and minor together and that she could draw from her knowledge of each. “Being an environmental studies minor, I focus a lot on social justice, and I was interested in how this case would play out.”
Vitone says her experience with the Justice Project has changed how she looks at herself as a journalist. “I learned that I am capable of so much more as a journalist than I ever knew,” Vitone says.
Eva Revear, (Communications, Computer Science) is the editor-in-chief at the Ledger, and looked forward to beginning the Justice Project. “It was definitely something I was very excited to do. I really love investigative journalism and there aren’t a lot of opportunities to do it right out of college.”
She’s gained a lot of valuable skills from her experience with this project: canvassing, being pushed out of her comfort zone, and interviewing police, prisoners and civilians alike. But her main take away was the impact she and her colleagues were able to have on the community. “We were able to start a conversation about the justice system in Tacoma. It was really huge to see what journalism can do.”
Revear has been working at the Ledger for four years and is searching for a career opportunity that combines her majors. “I’m hoping to do a career like data journalism or digital journalism. Those are the kinds of internships I’m applying for.”
Joanna Sappenfield (Communications) plans to seek out a job in journalism after her time at UW Tacoma. “There were a lot of ups and downs with this project,” Sappenfield says. “We started in June 2014. It’s been a long process and in the beginning I was really pumped. In the middle I was kind of ready to be done. Then we had the founder of the Medill Justice Project fly out to talk to us and it pumped me up again. I had to continue to get vision throughout the process.”
She has learned a lot from the project, but most importantly, she has felt what it’s like to be deeply involved in a case like this one. “We read these stories every day, someone getting shot or murdered. I think we’re very distant from that.” She pointed out that “we don’t really think about it, but when you dive into an investigation, and you get personal with these people, it makes it all very real.”
Sappenfield says that you “make your own time here” and she feels that she has had a better time at UW Tacoma because of the amount of involvement she’s had on campus and in this project.
Read the Justice Project team’s reporting on the Julius Williams case.
Read The News Tribune’s coverage of the Ledger’s 2014 investigation:
“UW Tacoma journalists resurrect 2006 Hilltop shooting death case,” by Brynn Grimley, November 15, 2014.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org