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2014 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Sex Predators Unleashed

 

About the Project

The Sun Sentinel investigation documented the tragic failures of a 1999 Florida law that was supposed to protect the public by keeping the most dangerous sex predators locked up after their prison sentences end. The newspaper found the state had a chance to stop nearly 600 men who went on to molest more than 460 children, rape 121 women and kill 14. Some found new victims the very day they walked out of prison.

Investigative reporter Sally Kestin and database specialist Dana Williams mined multiple data sources to expose a horrific picture of recurring tragedy. They cross-matched records maintained by multiple government agencies to track what became of sex offenders reviewed under the law — a step auditors had urged the state to do all along. No one, including state leaders, was aware of the extent of the problem until Kestin and Williams brought it to light.

Williams built a searchable database with mug shots of all 594 re-offenders and wrote a script to create a computer-generated case history that explained how each one slipped through and how long each was free before committing a new sex crime. The database opened with a dynamic gallery of photos loaded one at a time, creating a cascading effect that illustrated the scope of the problem.

The project was a multimedia tour de force. The web presentation by Rachel Schallom integrated documents, photo galleries, videos and graphics into the narrative, providing readers a seamless experience. Completely responsive, anyone on any device could delve into the project.

The project was multimedia packed and data-driven, but it told the stories of the victims and offenders in their own voices. Videos by Mike Stocker combined gripping interviews, photos and 911 calls to convey the human impact of the law’s failings. It was impossible to leave the piece without feeling moved.

Stocker also created a 26-minute documentary film from the series that was accepted into the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and is scheduled to air on public television.

The investigation prompted lawmakers to craft the most comprehensive overhaul of Florida’s sex offender laws in more than a decade.

“Your series performed a great service,” said Don Gaetz, president of the Florida Senate. “It was immensely helpful in not only rousing public opinion but strengthening the legislative will to deal with this issue.”

In addition to a legislative overhaul, the state tightened sex predator screening procedures and tripled the number of offenders recommended for continued confinement. The head of Florida’s Sexually Violent Predator Program resigned and was replaced by a sex crimes prosecutor.