To Jake Wark (And His Boss)

I rarely respond to criticisms made out in the blogosphere (or elsewhere) about me. And normally I wouldn't respond to the strange tirade I recently learned of in the comments at Universal Hub -- made about two weeks ago by Suffolk County DA press secretary Jake Wark, in which he insults, at remarkable length, my 2005 article "The Worst Homicide Squad In The Country." 

I'm not sure why Wark felt the need to go off on me (and separately to complain, in comments at UHub and here, about something else I wrote recently) -- and incidentally, I stand by the story, which I believe was a very accurate portrayal of the situation at that time. But Wark's free to disagree, and I don't typically like to dive into a tit-for-tat argument every time somebody expresses their disagreement with me.

I am only responding because Wark wrote the following in that UHub comment:

A jury found Demond Chatman guilty of murder, apparently believing the evidence that the author says was not enough to convict him. (And why does he say it wasn’t enough? Well, he suggests that investigators’ theory of the case was out of whack because of a witness who claimed to have spoken to the victim after prosecutors said she had to have been dead. What he doesn’t say is that the witness claimed to have spoken to the victim’s “spirit.”)

For Wark to dismiss my 6000-word article about the Chatman case that way is not just unfair to me; it is offensive to the criminal justice system and those who engage with it. It is apparently not enough for Wark that Chatman remains in prison, more than four years after my article appeared; or that his office and the BPD did not attempt to follow up on, or verify, anything in that article; or that his office is fighting against Chatman's attorney's efforts to have the courts acknowledge the psychiatric impairment that is obvious to every doctor and acquaintence (and which, I would strongly argue, prevented Chatman from assisting in his own defense). No, Wark must mock and deride the very idea of questioning the convicted man's innocence.

And, by the way, mock and deride the victim's best friend, who is the witness to whom Wark refers in his parenthetical. Contrary to what Wark writes, she did not claim to have spoken to the victim's "spirit." She claimed, as I wrote in the story (despite Wark's claim that I omitted it) "that the Holy Spirit moved her to make the phone call," but that she spoke with the victim herself, alive and well. This is what she told me, and as best as I know that is what she told the prosecutor prior to the trial. Mock her religious beliefs if you will, but I spent a considerable amount of time talking with her, and she related the phone call -- and a lot of other information -- with clarity, lucidity, and detail. That doesn't mean she is necessarily correct. But there's no need for Wark to change the entire nature of her claim to make it risible.

But it's even more ridiculous for Wark to imply that this detail is the basis, or even a significant piece, of my criticism of the investigation and prosecution of Demond Chatman. It is also insulting for Wark to suggest that I merely argued that the evidence presented to the jury was "not enough" to justify conviction.

That makes it sound like I was faulting the jurors. I am not. Actually, I'm not especially interested in faulting anyone.

No, I am interested in my three years of reporting that convinced me that Demond Chatman is almost certainly an innocent man, completely uninvolved with his mother's murder. That there is no evidence, no motive, no witness connecting him to the crime. That instead, there is evidence clearly showing that someone other than Chatman was involved, and not him. That there is excuplatory physical evidence that was deliberately presented at trial as evidence of his guilt. That there was potentially exculpatory evidence that was never considered. That the main witness was demonstrably untruthful about every relevant particular. That several witnesses, along with evidence, contradict the prosecution's timeline of events. And I could go on. And on, and on.

If Jake Wark, or more broadly the Suffolk DA's office, would like to actually dispute what I have written, or indeed would care to make any effort to defend the position that Chatman did commit this murder, I would be pleased. In fact, I would be thrilled. I have been waiting a long time for them to do so.

My article appeared in April, 2005. At no time after that did anyone from the DA's office, or the BPD, attempt to talk to me about the case. They have never asked me for further explanation or clarification, and they have never asked me whether I have additional information that I could not include in the article. They have never made any attempt to dispute anything I wrote in the article. To the best of my knowledge, they have never made any attempt to verify or disprove anything in the article -- for example, the critical shoe-print evidence that I called into question -- or to speak with any of the people I spoke with.

Chatman has been in prison for over nine years -- about half of that, since my article was published. The apparent irrelevance and impotence of my article is a source of constant frustration for me. But I bite my tongue about it, because I have done my part and reported the injustice. I came to understand long ago that that's my journalistic role; it's up to others to take the next steps. And besides, I don't want to seem like I'm on some wild-eyed mission to free the man just to prove myself right. (I have not, for instance, written about the ongoing appeals matters.)

But I am not going to allow Wark, a spokesperson for the District Attorney, to publicly deride my effort to bring some attention to what I consider to be a horrendous, tragic, ongoing miscarriage of justice, without actually disputing anything that I wrote. I don't deserve that. Chatman doesn't deserve it. The county Wark works for doesn't deserve it.

And I want to say one final thing. I have never before, publicly or privately, ever, in the slightest way, suggested that the DA's office may have declined to follow up on my Chatman story because of their personal feelings about me. I have never even entertained that notion, let alone alleged it. But the recent extraordinary invective toward me from Wark, and his dismissive mention of the Chatman case, made me wonder about it for the first time.

So please, Jake, prove me wrong. Show me that your dismissal of my 6000 words' worth of reporting was based not on your dislike of me, but on some actual information and knowledge within your office that my reporting was in error. Show me. You're the one who brought it up, so I'm asking you to back it up. Please. I am eagerly waiting.

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