To read NECIR’s findings in our joint investigation with WBUR, click here.
About 18 months ago, I received an intriguing proposal.
A convicted murderer contacted me through his wife to say he wanted to write for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, this website.
The convict, Darrell Jones, said he was uniquely positioned to report on criminal justice because of his 30 years behind bars. He invited me to the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, about an hour outside Boston, to talk about ideas.
I took an evening drive to prison. As we talked in the visiting room, separated by a thin red line taped to the floor, I soon realized the most interesting story to tell was that of Jones himself. He said that at the age of 19 he was convicted by an all-white jury of a crime he did not commit.
Jones said that the state’s case against him included no physical evidence, motive or eyewitness who definitively pointed to him in court. My review of the trial transcript verified this. Witnesses who had picked his picture out a police photo array earlier said under oath that they weren’t sure it was him.
I took the question of whether Jones was innocent to an investigative journalism class I teach for Emerson College and Boston University students. They read the transcript and knocked on the doors of witnesses to the crime. Some students could not let go of the project. When the class disbanded for the summer they volunteered to keep digging.
Leading the group was Leonard Singer, a Boston attorney who started out as one of the most skeptical students, emerged as one of the most dedicated to the story. He spent hours seeking public records, interviewing police and legal sources, and tracking down leads. His classmate Evelyn Martinez also kept chasing those who were near the Brockton, Massachusetts, parking lot where 43-year-old Guillermo Rodriguez was murdered on a rainy November night in 1985.
In the spring, a new partnership with Boston radio station WBUR brought in reporters Bruce Gellerman and Jesse Costa. They became engrossed with the hundreds of pages of court records and a critical challenge for radio — finding players in the drama to discuss the case on the air. Some were dead. Many were impossible to find or hung up on us.
Gellerman tracked down juror Eleanor Urbati, now 79, who says that she was never convinced of Jones’ guilt and regrets her decision to go along with the 11 other jurors to convict him. Gellerman also tracked down a former police captain in Brockton, Richard Sproules, to talk publicly about concerns about the prosecutor’s case. Costa helped us videotape interviews that breathed life into our story.
In reporting, we were struck by the struggles Jones had obtaining trial and police records. It wasn’t until 2011, some 25 years after he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, that an attorney working on his behalf obtained police records used in a recent court motion to re-open the case.
We bumped into challenges faced by people who visit loved ones in state prison every day – including a Department of Corrections dress code that can block access. One day I was barred from visiting because my Ann Taylor white button down shirt was too low cut and considered “excessively revealing.” Another day I was asked to shed my sweater because it had a hood, and then my shirt was prohibited because it dipped too far in the back. Luckily, I had learned to pack other clothes by that time.
Gellerman had to obtain a note from his doctor explaining that the metal in his limbs – which would be picked up in a security scan — was related to his recent knee surgery. On one visit, he wore shorts to show guards the scars, but was told that shorts weren’t allowed. He returned with jeans and wasn’t allowed in with those either. Some Massachusetts prisons allow inmates to wear jeans instead of prison uniforms, and the state doesn’t want visitors to be confused with prisoners.
We made several attempts to speak to the Brockton Police Department and the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case. The Police declined to comment. The DA’s office promised a response to Jones’s new motion in court and pointed out that he had lost previous appeals for a new trial.
After months of searching, we reached the murder victim’s wife Claridad and her daughter Julia in Florida. Julia, who was only one year old when her father died, said she knew very little about him, and cried when I told her about new findings related to the murder. Talking about him was “too painful,” she said before asking us to leave her family alone.
Jones wants people to read the court transcripts and police records to decide whether they think he was fairly incarcerated. We are hoping this story — and the documents, video and audio provided — will spur other students and researchers to seek answers for themselves.