2015 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

The NRA’s Murder Mystery


Dave Gilson

Mother Jones

Feature, Medium Newsroom


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About the Project

Unearthing, authenticating, and reporting the forgotten 50-year-old murder conviction of the NRA’s top lawyer could make even the most seasoned investigative journalist balk. Yet, Mother Jones Senior Editor Dave Gilson managed to sensitively navigate a massive web of documentation and sources to deliver a heretofore-untold and visually engaging story about a key figure inside the gun lobby’s most powerful player.

Gilson spent six months investigating the story of how the National Rifle Association’s general counsel, Robert J. Dowlut, was convicted of murder and later released due to bad police work. Dowlut has for decades been a crucial architect of the gun lobby’s effort to transform the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment. He has written or co-written more than 25 amicus briefs in state and federal cases, including a 1997 Supreme Court case aimed at striking down the Brady Law. But lurking in his past was a Hollywood-worthy mystery involving the very issues—gun crime and impulse violence, state power—that have been at the center of Dowlut’s career.

Gilson traveled to Dowlut’s hometown of South Bend, Indiana, where the mother of Dowlut’s then-girlfriend was murdered in her apartment in 1963. He scoured 2,100 pages of court documents and police records detailing the flawed investigation and trial—many of which were made available online as part of the article. He interviewed Dowlut’s industry colleagues and a lawyer who defended him, and tracked down the former girlfriend—one of the few surviving participants in that long-ago episode.

Slowly but surely, he pieced together the story of Dowlut’s journey from juvenile delinquency and conviction to a law degree and a career in Washington, where he has “done as much to tighten the NRA’s grip on gun policy as its blustery talking heads and provocative PR campaigns.”

Gilson collaborated with Mother Jones’ creative and digital teams to incorporate vintage news clippings and other documentation into the design. The final layout—wide-length text punctuated by breakout images and framed by sidebar resources—is as rich and eerie as the text itself. Called a “mesmerizing longread” by Gawker, “a phenomenal reporting job” by The New Republic, and dubbed “fascinating” by the New York Times, Gilson’s piece is a seminal work of crime reporting.