The Scripps Howard Foundation announced Tuesday that ProPublica won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award in human interest storytelling for “Blood Will Tell,” a two-part investigation jointly published by ProPublica and The New York Times.
ProPublica senior reporter Pamela Colloff, also a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, reported the story of Joe Bryan, a beloved high school principal whose wife, Mickey, was shot to death in their Texas home in 1985. While not initially considered a suspect, Bryan was arrested and charged with her murder. The prosecution’s case rested largely on the testimony of a “bloodstain-pattern analyst,” a police detective whose interpretation of the bloodied evidence made the state’s circumstantial case against Bryan seem plausible. In the end, jurors found him guilty. Now 78, Bryan has been behind bars for 31 years.
Colloff used an inventive approach to investigate both the case and the forensic science at its heart: She became an expert in bloodstain-pattern analysis herself. All it took, she learned, was a 40-hour class. Police officers around the country who had taken just such a class, including the detective who testified at Bryan’s trial, had been deemed experts by courts around the country.
After enrolling in a weeklong class in the subject, Colloff soon discovered that she and her classmates — all law enforcement officers or crime lab technicians — were being schooled less in the scientific method than in the art of being expert witnesses. Her immersion in the discipline allowed her to understand the otherwise forbidding-sounding jargon that analysts often wield in court, which ultimately gave her the authority to challenge the prosecution’s findings in the Bryan case.
Colloff’s dissection of the case and the practice of bloodstain-pattern analysis had real-life repercussions. Days after the article’s publication, the Texas Forensic Science Commission retained an independent expert to re-examine the bloodstain-pattern analysis used to convict Bryan. The commission found that the expert whose testimony helped secure the conviction was “entirely wrong,” and that his claims were “not accurate or scientifically supported.” The state’s case unraveled further when the expert admitted that his conclusions were incorrect. Texas’ highest criminal court is now considering whether or not to overturn Bryan’s conviction.