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ProPublica reporter wins 2023 Brechner Freedom of Information Award

ProPublica reporter Brett Murphy is the winner of the 2023 Brechner Freedom of Information Award for “Words of Conviction,” his investigation into the use of a technique used by police and prosecutors to treat people who called 911 for help as criminals themselves.

Murphy first learned about “911 call analysis” when investigating a botched murder case in Louisiana. The technique was developed by a retired police chief, who touted it as a way to determine if 911 callers reporting a death were in fact guilty of the crime themselves.

Most experts agree that 911 call analysis is junk science. But Murphy’s reporting documented more than 100 cases in 26 states where law enforcement used the results of 911 call analysis against defendants, often outside proper legal discovery obligations and without scrutiny.

Murphy discovered that prosecutors know that the technique is junk science but have found ways to sneak it into court because it can help win cases.

Murphy sent more than 80 public records requests to local agencies, interviewed 120 people and reviewed thousands of previously unreleased emails that documented the ways police and prosecutors disguise their use of the technique to accuse and convict people on the basis of how they spoke on a 911 call.

In addition to Murphy’s stories, ProPublica published audio of 911 calls, which allowed readers to hear emotion and context. “Murphy’s work is an exceptional example of dogged persistence and creativity in uncovering miscarriages of justice carried out under the guise of ‘science,’” said Janet Coats, interim director of the Brechner Center and managing director of the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology.

“Because 911 call analysis is used across many jurisdictions, often surreptitiously, the path to understanding its breadth and impact wasn’t an easy one. Relying on records and reverse-engineering his findings to discover additional cases, Murphy was able to show how people who turned to 911 for help in moments of personal tragedy found themselves facing prosecution and even jail.”

Murphy’s reporting describes how a technique promoted by one former law enforcement officer with no scientific background and limited experience investigating homicides has been marketed to law enforcement agencies and pushed by the FBI. Among the cases Murphy documents is the conviction of a young mother of killing her baby after a detective analyzed her 911 call for help. After publication, the Supreme Court of Illinois agreed to review the young
woman’s case. Attorneys for the Exoneration Project and the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences offered to represent the woman in her appeal.

Murphy’s work had impact beyond that individual case. Fair and Just Prosecution, a network of elected prosecutors, has called upon prosecutors to guard against the use of 911 analysis. The group’s president has presented ProPublica’s reporting at a prosecutors summit to warn new district attorneys about its use. Murphy’s work has also been awarded the George Polk Award in justice reporting by Long Island University.

Murphy is a reporter on ProPublica’s national desk. He joined the newsroom in May 2022 after working as an investigative reporter at USA Today. Before reporting for USA Today, he covered courts and hurricanes for the Naples Daily News and other Gannett newspapers. He co-founded the Local Matters newsletter, a weekly roundup of the best investigative and watchdog
reporting from local newsrooms around the country.

The Brechner Freedom of Information Award has been presented annually since 1986 by the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications to reward excellence in reporting that draws on government documents and data, shedding light on official secrecy. The award includes a $3,000 cash prize, made possible by an endowment created by the Brechner family.

Posted: April 4, 2023
Category: Brechner News
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