How I Got That Story: Dave Mann

"A Bloody Injustice," The Texas Observer

august 9, 2011  10:00 am
How I Got That Story: Dave Mann
Early in his career as a sports writer for The Winchester Star in Winchester, Va., Dave Mann realized he “wasn’t too into sports journalism” and switched gears toward more long form, investigative reporting.  

That decision has served him well. With eight years on the staff of  The Texas Observer, Mann, 34, is a multiple first place winner in AAN’s annual awards. This year, he took first place in the long form news story, circulation under 50,000 division, for "A Bloody Injustice," which questioned the blood splatter evidence in a 15-year-old trial that ended with a murder conviction. The story is one of several Mann has written examining of the credibility of forensic evidence.

As executive editor and interim editor of his paper, he said it’s become a challenge to juggle long term investigative stories with day-to-day tasks, but it’s not impossible. “You just kind of find a way to divide your time,” he said.
How did this story happen?

I first heard about that case from Walter Reaves, who is an attorney in Waco, TX, and he’s done work on innocence cases before. I have worked with Walter on a number of stories in the past and I was meeting with him, last summer, and he mentioned a case that he’d started working on, involving Warren Horinek.

He thought it was noteworthy because the prosecutor, the crime scene investigator and one of the detectives had all thought, during the original investigation, during the original trial, that this guy was innocent. They all thought that his wife had committed suicide and it turned out he had been convicted of murder. So right away, that really caught my attention because that sounded like such an unusual case. I’d never heard of anything like that and when I started talking to people about the story, no one I talked to had ever heard of anything quite like that either.

Reaves described to me that one of the main pieces of evidence in this trial and in this conviction was blood splatter evidence that was presented by a single forensic expert and a lot of that evidence that was presented at trial was now in dispute.

From that standpoint, it was very similar to some of the other stories that I had been working on and am still working on in that, I’ve done a number of stories in which there have been problems with forensic evidence. I did a series on flawed arson cases and kind of used that to start to explore some of the problems with forensic evidence.

The more people I talked to, the more I realized that a lot of the evidence that has been presented in years past in American courtrooms, a lot of forensic evidence, some of it has been deeply flawed and some of the forensic fields that are quite famous, whether it’s ballistics, or crime lab, or even fingerprinting, a lot of these fields, have had problems.

Especially looking at the National Academy of Sciences report on forensic evidence, all these things were kind of coming together in the last few years, that kind of give me the sense that can be a lot of problems with forensic evidence in the wrong hands. Some of it can often be very reliable, but in the hands of the wrong expert in a courtroom, it can send an innocent person to prison.

So, [when Walter mentioned this case,] I became kind of fascinated with it right away and when I looked at the trial transcript and went and looked at some of the evidence and become pretty convinced quickly that—I didn’t know if Horinek was innocent, but I thought there was something wrong with this case that deserved more scrutiny. So, I started investigating from there.

How much time did you spend with this story, from beginning to research to actually writing the piece?

Not too long; I would say between two and three months. From the time that I met with Walter and he told me about the case and I first got a hold of the trial transcript, and then talking to the forensic experts and then interviewing Warren, in prison, and putting the story together—I would say that was three months.

What was the most challenging aspect in reporting this story?

Some of the difficulties I had were, when you’re dealing with a technical field, you really want to understand [it] and blood splatter was not an area that I had really come across much in my previous reporting on forensics. I think it was a little of a challenge, in just a few months, to understand the basics of blood splatter, the history of the field, dating back to the 19th century and where the advances have been and how, in the last 30 or 40 years, it’s become more scientific and when you can have a reliable blood splatter evidence and when people take blood splatter evidence too far, or make statements that are unreliable.

When I was looking back at the record in the Horinek case, when I was trying to determine whether the testimony that was offered, the blood splatter evidence that was offered, was reliable or whether it was flawed. I don’t personally have that technical expertise, so I have to go seek out the people who can tell me whether this is correct or not. And that’s challenging; I’m not a scientist. That’s always a challenge, I think as a reporter.

Then, I went back and interviewed the expert in that case, who gave the testimony originally. I tracked him down and interviewed him and he, over the years, he’d changed his reasoning. He still thinks that Horinek is guilty, but over the years, he’s changed his reasoning a few times.

In fact, he said something different to me on the phone that he’d said in testimony and during the appeals. So, I had to go back to other experts and consult with them and check his new reasoning and go back to him, so it was challenging because in some interviews, you can be on the phone and you know someone’s telling you something that’s incorrect and you can challenge them on the spot about it.

But in this case, when I’ve got a forensic expert who’s telling me something on the phone that may or may not be correct, I don’t really have the personal expertise to question them in the right way right there on the phone. I feel like I’ve got to check with other experts and then come back.

Some of the other elements were things that I had a lot more experience with—reading through a trial transcript, or dealing with lawyers, or interviewing someone in prision; these are things that I’ve done before in some of my stories, but when you’re dealing with new forensic, scientific fields, that can be really challenging, I think.

Because you want to understand forensics, does that encourage you report on it?

I think it depends on the field.  When I first started reporting on arson science, fire science and forensics—in 2007; that's really when I started getting into it—yeah, I didn’t know very much; I think I was probably like everybody else, where I [thought] CSI, or whatever, when they bring their forensic expert in to testify to certain things, those things are probably correct. I knew there’d been some scandals in crime labs and we had a scandal at the Houston Police crime lab, but outside of those very specific examples, I didn’t really know that there was a larger problem with forensic evidence necessarily. But it doesn’t take very much time in reporting on the subject to know that there is a huge issue here, a much larger issue, in making sure that the evidence that's presented in court is scientifically verified.

We had decades where the evidence that was being presented in arson trials was not correct and it’s likely that many, many people—innocent people—were sent to prison on false convictions for arson. These were accidental fires that were misread as arson and people were sent to prison. I think the same holds true for other fields. It may not be quite as blatant as that, it may not be as widespread, as it is in arson, but we do see fields where—take finger print evidence; you watch movies and I don’t think there’s a single crime ever solved in any movie ever without finger print evidence. It’s pervasive. I think, the public, we think that that’s incredibly reliable and sometimes it is, but there certainly is some emerging evidence to show that there are some problems in the system.

In the Horinek case, if you go strictly by the science of blood splatter, and the issue here was, looking at the blood splatter on the defendent’s shirt and trying to tell from the blood splatter, how did that get there. Did that get there because he was administrating CPR after a suicide? Or did that get there as the result of a gun shot blast? If you do the blood splatter analysis strictly scientifically, the answer is we don’t know. You really can’t tell from that evidence on that shirt where it originated. There just isn’t the evidence there in those little spots of blood. Unfortunately, that’s not what a prosecutor wants to enter into a courtroom, you don’t want to say, “Well, I’m not sure.”

What was the reaction to the story like?

We got good reaction from people in the criminal justice field, in the legal field. Warren Horinek is in the process of trying to get exonerated and I think our story spelled out his case clearly in a way that no one else had before. This was a case that had been big news when it happened, when the trial was going on, and the case since then, it’s been pretty much forgotten about, I think, and we were the first ones to do a re-examination of it.

We got a little bit of media bounce here and there; some blogs picked it up and stuff, but this didn’t become major news, I would say, but it certainly aids anyone’s effort to get an exoneration.

I think Horinek has a hearing coming up in October, so I would like to think our reporting not only contributes to getting his case out there, getting his case known, but more generally contributes to the understanding of the potential problems with forensic evidence—the potential dangers of a forensic expert going too far.