Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism announced Wednesday that Joe Sexton is the winner of the 2021 Mike Berger Award for his ProPublica story “He’d Waited Decades to Argue His Innocence. She Was a Judge Who Believed in Second Chances. Nobody Knew She Suffered from Alzheimer’s.” The annual prize, named after the late New York Times reporter Meyer “Mike” Berger, honors the year’s best in-depth, human-interest reporting.
The article reveals a tragedy of the criminal justice system unlike any other: a convicted killer at last granted a hearing on his innocence, only to have his bid for freedom overseen by a judge soon removed from the bench because of dementia.
Nelson Cruz was 16 when he was accused of killing a man in the streets of Brooklyn. Sent away for 25 years to life after a brief and flawed trial, he never gave up trying to prove his innocence. Two decades later, he got his first real shot to argue his case and gain his freedom: Judge ShawnDya Simpson had granted him an evidentiary hearing, one in which he could produce witnesses, challenge his accusers and give voice to his claims of innocence.
Simpson seemed the perfect person to take Cruz seriously: She too was from Brooklyn; as a prosecutor, she was unafraid of walking away from suspect cases; as a judge, she was insistent on granting defendants a level playing field. But there was something no one knew about the superstar judge: She was, at 54, suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
What followed were months of delays and missteps, confusing hearings and erratic rulings. The judge was in cognitive decline, but because she was so young, no one figured it out. Her family, locked in its own battle with denial and worry, also mistook her struggle for something other than what it was. Simpson, in literally her last major case, denied Cruz’s case for innocence, and then she disappeared, first into a mysterious medical leave and then into retirement from the bench for life.
Sexton’s empathetic story explores the lives and losses of both Cruz and Simpson. It probes whether the institutions overseeing our nation’s judges are equipped to deal with questions of impairment on the bench, and it establishes facts suggesting that Cruz, guilty or innocent, has been denied fairness in a uniquely tragic way.
After the story was published, the court system quickly announced a review of the judge’s cases. Cruz was assigned a new judge to try and sort out truth and fairness. Simpson’s husband volunteered to assist in any inquiry into the possible impact of his wife’s illness on the cases before her. Eventually, however, the courts decided to let the conviction stand.