Magazine article Reason

Death of a Watchdog: Pete Shellem, Crime Reporter

Magazine article Reason

Death of a Watchdog: Pete Shellem, Crime Reporter

Article excerpt

I NEVER MET Pete Shellem. I hadn't even heard of him before I read his obituary in November. But I wish I'd had a drink with the guy. In an age when journalism has been plagued by budget woes, dubious trend stories, and endless navel gazing about the state of the profession, Shellem merely helped free four wrongly convicted people from prison in a period of 10 years. In the 1990s his reporting also caught a prominent Pennsylvania politician in a corruption scandal, revealing that Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr. had solicited and then failed to report $40,000 in campaign contributions; Preate eventually served 14 months on mail fraud charges.

Shellem killed himself in October. He was 49.

Described by a former colleague in a 2007 American Journalism Review profile as a "B-movie reporter--you know, a chain-smoking tough guy who meets his sources in bars and operates around the edges," Shellem spent two decades covering the courts for the Harrisburg Patriot-News. In the accounts of his passing, colleagues and friends describe him as the sort of reporter who read court transcripts, trial briefs, and lab reports for fun, whose office was filled with phone numbers scrawled on bar napkins and letters from desperate convicts proclaiming their innocence. Between filing stories about murder trials and covering day-to-day court operations, Shellem developed and worked sources in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system. He also developed an eye for irregularities in police reports, witness statements, and other court documents. That's when he started helping innocent people get out of jail.

The first person Shellem's reporting freed from prison was Patricia Carbone. Carbone had told police she'd been abducted by a man named Jerome Lint, who attempted to rape her. Carbone then pulled a knife from her purse and stabbed Lint to death. Prosecutors didn't believe her story. She was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But Shellem looked into Carbone's claims, and found another woman who had also been assaulted by Lint. That discovery led prosecutors to reopen Carbone's case. She was released from prison in 1998.

Shellem's reporting also tore holes in the state's case against Steve Crawford, who spent 28 years in prison after he was convicted of killing a friend at age 14. Shellem found new evidence supporting Crawford's innocence, including indications that a state crime lab report had been altered to incriminate him. In 1998 Crawford too was released.

Barry Laughman, a mentally retarded man, was convicted of killing an 84-year-old woman in 1988, before modern DNA testing had emerged. Laughman's attorneys had no idea what happened to the biological evidence taken from the crime scene, nor did they understand that locating the evidence could definitively establish their client's guilt or innocence. In 2003 Shellem tracked the evidence to the DNA specialist who had analyzed it for Laughman's trial; he had been based at Penn State at the time but had since moved to Leipzig, Germany, taking the evidence with him. …

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