2023 Excellence in Social Justice Reporting, Portfolio finalist

Documenting the Death Penalty

About the Project

Among the only journalists in the country who cover the death penalty as a beat, Intercept senior reporters Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith have developed a unique capacity to identify cases that are emblematic of the system’s flaws. In a series of reports on people facing execution, they exposed the failures of capital punishment in vivid, unsettling detail, from its disproportionate impact on people of color to the routine indifference of the courts toward evidence of innocence.

The reporters reviewed thousands of pages of court records and tracked down old witnesses to uncover evidence of state misconduct, racial bias, and forensic error. They deftly developed the human characters at the center of these cases — which by definition involve wrenching loss, extreme violence, and lasting trauma — contextualizing systemic problems empathetically and without salaciousness. By distilling complex legal issues into clear and compelling narratives, they laid bare how someone can remain on death row despite overwhelming evidence of innocence or be executed for a conviction that even prosecutors admit was tainted by racism.

Segura and Smith were the first national reporters to scrutinize the conviction of Richard Glossip in 2015, uncovering compelling evidence of Glossip’s innocence. In August, after Oklahoma set a new execution date for Glossip, Segura and Smith published an article that further dismantled the state’s theory of the crime, featuring interviews with key witnesses who were never contacted by police or prosecutors before Glossip’s trial. Their relentless coverage of the legal saga that followed included a behind-the-scenes account of the prosecutorial interests pushing to see Glossip executed even as the state’s top law enforcement officer sought to vacate his conviction.

Segura and Smith’s reporting also demonstrated the stark racial dimensions of the death penalty. In November, Segura traveled to the Arizona State Prison Complex to interview Murray Hooper, a 76-year-old Black man who had been on death row for 40 years when he received an execution date. By then, the state’s theory of the crime had largely fallen apart. But Hooper’s case was perhaps most revealing for what it exposed about capital punishment’s legacy of racism: Hooper was sentenced to death by all-white juries in two different states.

Later that month, Segura and Smith published an investigation into the case of Kevin Johnson, who was sentenced to death by a jury intentionally stacked with white people by the notorious former prosecutor of St. Louis County, Missouri. Johnson had killed a white police officer when he was just 19. For many, the circumstances of the murder might suggest an open-and-shut case. But the reporters showed how this act of violence was inextricable from structural racism — and how the death penalty has been deployed to reinforce the status quo. These painstaking, clear-eyed accounts bring a measure of justice to those whom the justice system has failed, and in some cases, may help spare their lives.