2023 Feature, Small Newsroom finalist

Police killed his son. Prosecutors charged the teen’s friends with his murder.

The Appeal

Feature, Small Newsroom


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Police killed 19-year-old Jacob Harris, but the teenager’s friends are serving decades in prison for it. On Jan. 11, 2019, a Phoenix police officer shot Harris twice in the back as he ran away from police after robbing a burger restaurant. The officer who killed Harris, Kristopher Bertz, was cleared of any wrongdoing by police and prosecutors. Instead, prosecutors charged Harris’s three friends—aged 14, 19, and 20 at the time—with his murder under Arizona’s felony murder law, which allows people to be charged with murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony.

In an effort to piece together what happened on the night Harris was killed, The Appeal’s Meg O’Connor read more than 6,000 pages of records from official investigations into the shooting, the county attorney’s prosecution of Harris’s friends, and the civil suit his father filed against the city of Phoenix, interviewed nine people involved with the case, and obtained police personnel records, transcripts of police radio traffic, and aerial surveillance footage of the shooting.

The records revealed that multiple law enforcement officials made false or misleading statements about what happened that night and deleted text messages related to the shooting. It also raised questions about the department’s conduct prior to the shooting: officers had been surveilling Harris and his friends for over 12 hours at the time, believing that they were connected to a string of robberies. Though police had many opportunities to stop the group throughout the day, they ultimately chose to “allow a robbery to happen,” as one officer put it.

The Appeal also obtained thermal footage of the incident taken from a surveillance aircraft which contradicts the Phoenix Police Department’s version of events. And transcripts from the criminal case against Harris’s friends show that a judge said the video shows Harris did not do what the police said he did. Yet Harris’s three friends have been incarcerated for his murder since the night police killed Harris.

O’Connor, who had previously reported on and closely followed this case for years, had developed a strong source relationship with Harris’s father, which allowed her to obtain the critical footage that formed the backbone of this feature.

Within a single day, this authoritative, detail-rich, and empathetic feature became The Appeal’s most read story since our worker-led relaunch in October 2021.

O’Connor has pursued several new leads since the story was published, one of which revealed that the detective who investigated Harris’s death, Jennifer DiPonzio, left the Phoenix Police Department in 2022 amid an internal investigation into her mishandling of evidence in dozens of murder cases. This could impact the long sentences of Harris’s friends: If the court knew of DiPonzio’s ethical issues while they were prosecuting Harris’s friends, they would have been legally required to disclose those issues to the defense, which they did not. In that case, all three could challenge their sentences based upon the fact that the court did not disclose material they were legally obligated to.