Exonerated but not free: What do we owe the wrongfully convicted?

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on November 9, 2014.

In the US, state laws governing compensation for wrongfully convicted people vary significantly. While some states offer sizable packages for the exonerated, at least 20 offer nothing. And even for those that do, it may not be enough to make up for the emotional damage on those who’ve been wrongfully convicted.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Sam Weber
Editor: Saskia de Melker and David Kreger


Four wrongfully convicted men, four very different outcomes

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on November 9, 2014.

Alan Newton, Jeffrey Deskovic, Drew Whitley, and Johnny Pinchback were all exonerated in the past decade. Credit: NewsHour
Alan Newton, Jeffrey Deskovic, Drew Whitley, and Johnny Pinchback were all exonerated in the past decade. Credit: NewsHour

When a wrongfully convicted person gets released from prison, it is a major news event: Local television crews capture the first moments of freedom and the speeches on the steps of the state capital, audiences empathize as they grapple with gratitude and rage, and the exonerees take their first steps into an uncertain future.

Jeffrey Deskovic, who was in prison for 16 years after being wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of his high school classmate, said it was the most surreal moment of his life: “It felt like a dream,” he said. “When I stepped up to the microphones at the press conference, I asked ‘Is this really happening?’”

But when the limelight fades, the wrongfully convicted face the reality of navigating the world they were yanked from, often with limited financial and social support.

According to the Innocence Project, it takes exonerees three years on average to receive any compensation after their release. More than a quarter get nothing. Among those who are paid, 81 percent get less than $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.

NewsHour spoke to a number of exonerated men from different states about their experiences reintegrating post-release. All of them, regardless of compensation, say they would pay anything to have the years they lost in prison back…..read more at PBS NewsHour.

Agrarian roots? Think again. Debunking the myth of summer vacation’s origins

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on September 7, 2014.

Children working on a farm near Mt. Vernon, Ky., in 1916. Credit: Library of Congress
Children working on a farm near Mt. Vernon, Ky., in 1916. Credit: Library of Congress

It’s an image that many remember of America’s agrarian past: Kids toiling away on family farms during the long, hot summer break between school years.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the origin of the school calendar is often linked to these images — by policy makers and in the media.

In a story about achievement gaps caused by summer vacation, Time Magazine called the school calendar “a legacy of the farm economy.” In a segment on summer programs for low-income kids, NPR reported that the school year was based on an “agrarian calendar that dates back to farm cycles and harvests.” While advocating that kids spend more time in school, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told The New York Times that the long summer break was “based on the agrarian economy.”

But while there may be a kernel of truth to this theory, it’s mostly wrong.

“What school on the agrarian calendar actually looked like was a short winter term and a short summer term” said Kenneth Gold, a historian at the College of Staten Island. “And if you think about farming needs, that’s actually what makes sense.”

Kids in rural, agricultural areas were most needed in the spring, when most crops had to be planted, and in the fall, when crops were harvested and sold. Historically, many attended school in the summer when there was comparatively less need for them on the farm.

“The whole idea of an agrarian calendar makes it sound like it was an unthinking decision but the current school year was really a conscious creation,” said Gold, who is the author of “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.”

Urban schools had a very different school schedule, but also included summer. School was essentially open year round, but was not mandatory, and children came when they could. In 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days a year, dramatically more than the 180 or so that they are open today.

In the days before air conditioning, schools and entire cities could be sweltering places during the hot summer months. Wealthy and eventually middle-class urbanites also usually made plans to flee the city’s heat, making those months the logical time in cities to suspend school.

By the late 19th century, school reformers started pushing for standardization of the school calendar across urban and rural areas. So a compromise was struck that created the modern school calendar.

A long break would give teachers needed time to train and give kids a break. And while summer was the logical time to take off, the cycles of farming had nothing to do with it, Gold said.

And none of the reasons for creating the current school calendar related to student achievement. “The conversations that we’re having today about creating a context for academic achievement just weren’t there.”

But today, researchers are considering that exact question.

Long summer breaks have been shown to cause children, especially lower-income children, to lose ground academically. It’s a phenomenon known as “summer slide,” where students return to school in the fall having lost a full month of learning, on average.

Researchers have studied enriching summer programs, summer school, and even year-round school to combat this summer learning loss. One school district in West Virginia has had a year-round calendar for more than two decades. Watch the video below to learn more.

New Jersey court strikes down murder conviction based on violent rap lyrics

Updated Story — published on PBS NewsHour on August 4, 2014

The New Jersey State Supreme Court on Monday overturned, by a vote of 6-0, the attempted murder conviction of an aspiring rapper and small-time drug dealer Vonte Skinner, arguing that the extensive reading of Skinner’s violent rap lyrics during his trial unfairly prejudiced the jury.

As the PBS NewsHour reported last month, rap lyrics are increasingly being used by prosecutors nationwide as evidence of motive or intent, or in some cases, treated as confessions to specific crimes. Some legal scholars alarmed by this trend argue that rap lyrics are largely fictional, artistic works, and introducing their sometimes violent and graphic content at trial unfairly taints juries….read more at PBS NewsHour.

Rappers respond: ‘This is how we express ourselves’

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on July 2, 2014.

Rappers Respond

A man shoots his foe in the head over and over again, leaving him to bleed out on the street. The man has no remorse. He even brags about it.

Only this man isn’t real. He’s a character in a rap song written by Vonte Skinner, who was sentenced to 30 years in a New Jersey state penitentiary for the attempted murder of Lamont Peterson.

In Skinner’s case, prosecutors relied on two eyewitnesses who claimed he was the shooter, though their stories had changed several times. They also read 13 pages of violent rap lyrics to the jury, taken straight from Skinner’s own notebooks, to show his violent intentions and aspirations.

Across the country, police and prosecutors are increasingly using a suspect’s own rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases. Law enforcement argues that they help establish motive or intent and in some cases even contain confessions. But critics argue that rap music is just that: music. It’s not a diary.

NewsHour recently reported on this growing trend and the issues of relevance, prejudice and first amendment protections that are being weighed when the criminal justice system probes lyrics.

We wanted to know more about what artists and others in the hip hop industry think about this trend and the various arguments about why it does or does not make good evidence…read more at PBS NewsHour.

Nuns, law enforcement mobilize to prevent sex trafficking around the Super Bowl

This story aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on February 1, 2014.

As millions of fans debate who will win the game and by how much on Super Bowl Sunday, others, including law enforcement, will be focused on preventing the exploitation and trafficking of young women that they say increases around large sporting events.

Producer: Saskia de Melker
Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera:  Saskia de Melker, Stephen Fee, Mori Rothman
Editor: David Kreger

HARI SREENIVASAN: All this week there have been more than a few concerns on the minds of the Super Bowl Host Committee, including the selling of counterfeit tickets, and of course worries over what had been bitter cold weather.

BRONCOS FANS: “We’re just here to see the team, hopefully we’ll get up in front and I’m sorry my mouth is just so cold I can’t even talk.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: But in this church in Montclair, New Jersey only nine miles away from where the game will be played tomorrow, Sister Pat Daly has a very different concern about the Super Bowl: protecting young women she believes are being exploited by sex traffickers.

SISTER PAT DALY: People don’t really realize the underside of these celebrations. We see spikes of advertising for sex trafficking and prostitution in and around large sporting events.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  One so-called Super Bowl week special we found online this past week offered customers a chance to ‘get out of the freezing weather and get warm and cozy with me.”

Another from someone calling herself a “new Barbie in town” and calling herself a “NFL Super Bowl Secret” promised “satisfaction is always guaranteed.”

Sister Pat says traffickers take advantage of the increased demand for prostitution by bringing in girls and some boys from across the region.

The effort to control trafficking at Super Bowls is actually nothing new. For the past three years, starting in Dallas in 2011 nuns and other activists have mobilized to raise awareness of sex trafficking around the game, especially of minors.

SISTER PAT DALY: Anyone who is involved who is 18 years and younger is going to be a victim of human trafficking. Certainly we’re not going after prostitutes – that’s not what we’re about. What we’re trying to do is focus on the people who are really being held captive, who feel trapped.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The fear and the coercion is really what holds someone back from doing what they want to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Danielle Douglas, who was profiled in a recent documentary about sex trafficking called tricked, claims she knows firsthand about the problem.

At the age of seventeen and about to start her freshman year of college in Boston, she says she was befriended by an older man, who, one day without warning, dumped her on the street without any belongings and demanded she prostitute herself. When she didn’t, she says he severely beat her.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The way that he treated me got progressively worse. He was very violent and he would beat me all the time. He would also verbally abuse me. He kept me on a very shot chain and made sure that I was always right next to him unless I was with a john and that’s part of their manipulation tactics is to keep you very, very close and not let you have any time to yourself. I had food deprivation, sleep deprivation.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  By her account she was held for two years and routinely forced to turn tricks at big sporting events.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: I was forced to go to certain areas when there were large events Celtics playoffs, big games, big concerts, things like that to be in the area of those events where it was known for people to go after those events – bars restaurants, hotels.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: There’s alcohol, there’s usually large groups of male people. It’s a form of entertainment. It’s a way that men feel like when they are not with their other half, their girlfriends or wives and are with their male friends they are looking for something else to go on to after the main event and this is what happens. And people know that. The pimps know that and they will direct the people under their control, men and women, girls or boys to those areas.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And that’s why, with the game fast approaching, sister pat and 400 volunteers who work with her from Connecticut to Philadelphia, have been reaching out to hotels – from small motels to big chains — asking their cooperation in blocking sex trafficking from their lodging. They’re asking hotels to post missing children’s fliers.

MARGOT AND PAT TALKING TO MOTEL MANAGER: We’re going around to all the hotels in the area and we’re asking them to at least keep this in their office so that they can look at images of the girls and then see if they recognize anyone.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  They’re also asking them to post the national hotline in hotel rooms and encouraging them to train staff to recognize the red flags of trafficking.

SISTER PAT DALY: We’re certainly asking people to be watchful of underage children. And then anyone who seems to be coerced. It’s really a sense of so many of the stories we’ve heard from people who are on staff at hotels who have said, ‘yeah we had this gut feeling.’ Well, now we’re trying to train that gut feeling so that the front desk knows what to do or the people in housekeeping – they certainly know what is going on in a hotel room.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Sister Pat’s anti-sex trafficking campaign is actually part of a larger effort. For more than 20 years, she’s been the executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment… which works alongside other faith-based institutional investors to promote corporate responsibility.

Their message about sex trafficking seems to be getting through.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents more than 50,000 hotels, motels, lodges and inns, recently developed a trafficking training program. The Association gave us a statement saying”

“All employees are expected to comply and are encouraged to alert the authorities if there is suspected trafficking in their hotel.”

While some dispute that sex trafficking actually spikes at sporting events like the super bowl, sister pat believes attention surrounding the game presents an opportunity to publicize the wider problem.

And it is enough of a concern that authorities in New York and New Jersey have focused attention on it.

In the days leading up to tomorrow’s game, New York City Police reported a jump in prostitution arrests — some following from fake sex ads posted by police. Authorities also cracked down on a sex ring that they say had been under surveillance for months. Authorities said they “decided to act now in the hopes of disrupting any parties that might have been in the works for the upcoming Super Bowl weekend.

INSPECTOR ANTHONY FAVALE, NYPD: While we will engage in operations that will apprehend persons for prostitution at every twist and turn of that process we going to campaign to see if there is the potential that this person is a victim of trafficking.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The issue of sex trafficking also came up at a recent security briefing for tomorrow’s game.

COL. RICK FUENTES, SUPERINTENDENT NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE: In this area, troopers, local police officers have been trained to recognize this activity. And of course of most importance is whether children are involved in this trafficking which is obviously a very grievous crime. So we are looking to interrupt this activity where and when it occurs and we are also not just looking to just make arrests although of the traffickers themselves but we’re also looking to rescue people who are trapped in this lifestyle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Danielle believes the efforts of Sister Pat and others are starting to pay off because of heightened awareness among law enforcement officials and business leaders. But she fears the gains could easily be lost.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The moment we decide to stop causing awareness the pimps will most likely go right back to taking the people under their control back to the event.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  A thought echoed by Sister Pat, who is already looking ahead to next year’s game

SISTER PAT: We’re looking at a time today where human beings are treated like commodities so we’re going to continue to be working together long after the Super Bowl moves on to Arizona.

Researchers measure increasing sexualization of images in magazines

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on December 21, 2013.

In a 2011 photo spread for French Vogue, models stretched and slinked on an array of exotic animal furs. Their bodies were covered in jewels. Their faces were flush with rouge. They stared seductively into the camera. Nothing about these scenes would be out of the ordinary in the haute fashion magazine, except that in this case, the models were as young as 10 years old.

The controversial spread caused a flood of criticism from media watchers and feminist bloggers alike — especially here in the U.S.A. But in a culture where sexuality is more accepted, had the French finally gone too far?

In response to the Vogue controversy, the French Senate opened an investigation into whether there was a problem with hypersexualzation affecting French children and if so what to do about it.

And here in the United States a growing body of research has also taken a more critical look at the sexualization of our society.

Social psychologist Sarah Murnen has studied the hypersexualization of women in media for more than 25 years. The research that she and her colleagues at Kenyon College conducted over the last several years found a steep increase in the pervasiveness of images in magazines that show young women in highly sexual ways. The American Psychological Association defines hypersexualization as “occurring when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics.”

“We’ve seen three trends associated with these images,” said Sarah Murnen, “It’s now common to see more parts of the body exposed. There is more emphasis on the size of women’s breasts. And easy access to all these images has made it all more acceptable to us.”

In Murnen and her team’s recent analysis of Seventeen magazine’s advertisements and articles, they found that the average number of sexualizing characteristics almost tripled over three decades. In particular, depictions of low-cut tops and tight fitting clothing increased.

In a 2008 study of 1,988 advertisements from 50 well known American magazines, researchers from Wesleyan University found that half of them show women as sex objects. A woman was considered a sex object depending on her posture, facial expression, make-up, activity, camera angle and amount of skin shown.

In images where women were shown in victimized roles, the study found that most of the time they were also portrayed as sex objects. The authors noted that such images may function to normalize violence against women.

Sociologists at the University of Buffalo reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades. They found that sexualized representations of both men and women have become more common over time. In the 1960’s 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers were sexualized while in the 2000’s, 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women were sexualized. However, they concluded that women were much more likely to be “hypersexualized” — showing a combination of multiple sexualized attributes.

“It’s the intensity and extent of being sexualized — not just one or two elements, but much more — that we are seeing increase in the portrayals of women.” said Erin Hatton, coauthor of the study.

Researchers from these studies used their own coding systems to rate the images for sexualizing traits. Those traits vary from study to study but include: body parts shown, body pose, facial expression, activity, camera angle and clothing. Some studies, like the analysis of Rolling Stone covers, assigned a sliding scale of points for each coded trait in order to get a more accurate rating of images. For example, exposure of body parts is usually coded high for sexualization, but does not always register. In the absence of other traits, a woman wearing a bathing suit might not be coded as a sex object while a fully clothed woman in a suggestive pose could be considered a sex object.

To get an idea of how the coding systems work, we decided to put it to the test. While reporting our story in France on the subject of hypersexualization, we picked up a selection of women’s fashion magazines that were on display at an everyday newsstand. From those magazines, we picked out a sampling of representative images of women in photo spreads and advertisements.

We asked experts Sarah Murnen and Erin Hatton to analyze these images using their research methods. Hatton clarifies that her coding system isn’t perfect and was intended for images in American social context.

“Sexuality is very much a social construction and, thus, a product of a particular socio-cultural environment,” said Hatton. “What we deem to be appropriate to “wear on the street” is likely not the same in other countries, including those in which women are expected to be fully covered and those in which women are not.”

We also want to hear what you think about these images, and the trends towards hypersexualization? What are your thoughts on the increasing sexualization of people depicted in popular culture? Let us know in the comments.

For more on the research behind sexualized images in American media, read the full study “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone.”

Also of interest:

Low-Cut Shirts and High Heeled Shoes: Increased Sexualization Across Time in Magazine Depictions of Girls

Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements