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The Rising Tide of Wrongful Convictions


Lara Bazelon | an excerpt adapted from Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction | Beacon Press | 24 minutes (6,738 words)

The National Registry of Exonerations is a small, nonprofit research project founded in 2012. What the project lacks in manpower it makes up in zeal, documenting every known exoneration dating back to 1989, the first year that DNA exonerations were recorded in the United States. Staff members collect detailed information about each case from court documents and news reports, provide a comprehensive narrative about the case, and break down the data into numerous categories, including gender, race, geography, crime of conviction, factors that contributed to the wrongful conviction, and whether the case involved DNA. The registry’s website provides detailed graphs that set out the cause or causes of the wrongful convictions and chart their frequency over time.

On March 7, 2017, the registry released a report summarizing the data it had documented since its founding: 1,994 exonerations. (The number is now above 2,100.) Seventy-eight percent of the exonerations did not involve DNA evidence. This finding surprises many people, as it seems at odds with the way that crime is prosecuted on popular television shows and in movies, where the perpetrator inevitably leaves behind a tiny but undeniable bit of himself. Skin follicles are collected from under the victim’s fingernails, blood or semen is retrieved from a stain, a trace of saliva is lifted from a soda can or cigarette butt. In fictionalized accounts, diligent detectives and technicians rapidly collect and analyze this trace DNA evidence. More often than not, when the episode concludes, the bad guy has been conclusively identified, apprehended, and locked away.

The reality is much messier and more complicated. Even when DNA exists, backlogs and bureaucracy mean that it can take months, if not years, to test. Crime labs also come to erroneous conclusions, often because the technicians are incompetent, overwhelmed, or even corrupt. In 2010, at a San Francisco crime laboratory, a technician stole some of the cocaine she was supposed to be testing, resulting in a scandal that led to the dismissal of seventeen hundred pending criminal cases. Five years later, in the same laboratory, two other bad apples — a technician and her immediate supervisor — were discovered to have committed misconduct so serious it required the San Francisco district attorney’s office to review fourteen hundred criminal cases. Both employees had failed DNA proficiency testing examinations administered by a national crime lab accrediting agency a year earlier, but had kept their jobs. At least one found conclusive DNA matches where none existed. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Sasha Issenberg, Libby Copeland, Jamilah King, Berry Grass, and Dayna Evans.

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Who Cares? : On Nags, Martyrs, the Women Who Give Up, and the Men Who Don’t Get It

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Gemma Hartley | an excerpt adapted from Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward | HarperOne | November 2018 | 16 minutes (4,288 words)


“Just let me do it,” I told Rob as I watched him struggle to fold our daughter’s fitted sheet shortly after he took over laundry duty. It’s a phrase I’m sure he’s heard from me countless times, and even when I’m not saying it out loud, I’ve often implied it with a single you’re-doing-it-wrong stare. I cannot pretend that I have not played a part in creating such a deep divide in the emotional labor expectations in my home. I want things done a certain way, and any deviation from my way can easily result in me taking over. If the dishwasher is loaded wrong, I take it back on instead of trying to show my husband how to load it. If the laundry isn’t folded correctly, I’ll decide to simply do it myself. On occasion I have found myself venting with friends that it is almost as if our male partners are purposefully doing things wrong so they won’t have to take on more work at home.

While I don’t think this has been the case in my own home, for some women this is a reality. A 2011 survey in the UK found that 30 percent of men deliberately did a poor job on domestic duties so that they wouldn’t be asked to do the job again in the future. They assumed that their frustrated partners would find it easier to do the job themselves than deal with the poor results of their half-hearted handiwork. And they were right. A full 25 percent of the men surveyed said they were no longer asked to help around the house, and 64 percent were only asked to pitch in occasionally (i.e., as a last resort).

Even if men aren’t consciously doing a poor job to get out of housework, their lackluster “help” still frustrates. A similar survey conducted by Sainsbury’s in the UK found that women spent a whole three hours per week, on average, redoing chores they had delegated to their partners. The list where men fell short left little ground uncovered: doing the dishes, making the bed, doing the laundry, vacuuming the floors, arranging couch cushions, and wiping down counters were all areas of complaint. Two-thirds of the women polled felt convinced that this was their partner’s best effort, so perhaps it’s not surprising that more than half didn’t bother “nagging” them to do better. They simply followed their partners around and cleaned up after them. Read more…

The Second Half of Watergate Was Bigger, Worse, and Forgotten By the Public

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David Montero | an excerpt adapted from Kickback: Exposing the Global Corporate Bribery Network | Viking | November 2018 | 16 minutes (4,298 words)

In 1975, Peter Clark was a young attorney in the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Founded three years earlier, the Enforcement Division was tasked with investigating possible violations of federal securities laws. One morning, Clark was in his office when the division’s director, Stanley Sporkin, appeared, greatly vexed. Sporkin, tall and corpulent with deep-set eyes, was waving a newspaper, Clark recalled. “How the ‘bleep’ could a publicly held company have a slush fund?” Sporkin asked.

Two years had passed since the Watergate scandal broke, and less than a year since President Nixon had resigned, but the reverberations of the scandal were still rocking Washington. Its revelation that multinational corporations, including some of the most prestigious brands in the United States, had been making illegal contributions to political parties not only at home but in foreign countries around the world would later be described by Ray Garrett, the chairman of the SEC, as “the second half of Watergate, and by far the larger half.” Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas; Phil Klay, Harley Rustad, Michael Graff, and Alan Siegel.

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Insomnia: To Pursue Sleep So Hard You Become Invigorated By the Chase

Telling time at night using a nocturnal, 1539. Hulton Archive / Getty

Marina Benjamin | an excerpt adapted from Insomnia | Catapult | November 2018
| 8 minutes (2,134 words)

Sometimes the rattle of a clapper sounds over your bed. Or a ghostly draft lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, cooling your skin; or there’s an upstroke, feather light, along the inside of your forearm. A sudden lurch, maybe just a blink, then a sense of falling upward and it is there. So are you.

If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence? This is the trouble with insomnia.

When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Peter DeMarco, Tiffany Kary and Christopher Cannon, Rebecca Solnit, Will Bostwick, and Rosecrans Baldwin.

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George Washington Lived in an Indian World, But His Biographies Have Erased Native People

Etching of the original silver medal presented by George Washington to Red Jacket. Library of Congress.

Colin G. Calloway | an excerpt adapted from The Indian World of George Washington | Oxford University Press | 23 minutes (6,057 words)

On Monday Afternoon, February 4, 1793, President George Washington sat down to dinner at his official home on Market Street in Philadelphia. Washington’s dinners were often elaborate affairs, with numerous guests, liveried servants, and plenty of food and wine. On this occasion Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Governor of the Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair, and “the Gentlemen of the President’s family” dined with him because they were hosting an official delegation. Six Indian men, two Indian women (see Author’s Note on use of the word “Indian”), and two interpreters, representing the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw, Potawatomi, and Mascouten Nations, had traveled more than eight hundred miles from the Wabash and Illinois country to see the president. Before dining, they made speeches and presented Washington with a calumet pipe of peace and strings of wampum. Thomas Jefferson took notes.

Just one week later, Monday, February 11, Washington’s dinner guests included several chiefs from the Six Nations — the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois — a Christian Mahican named Hendrick Aupaumut, and Akiatonharónkwen or Atiatoharongwen, the son of an Abenaki mother and an African American father, who had been adopted by Mohawks but now lived in Oneida country, and who was usually called “Colonel Louis Cook” after Washington approved his commission for services during the Revolution. Before dinner the president thanked his Indian guests for their diplomatic efforts in carrying messages to tribes in the West.

Indian visits halted when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. Five thousand people died, and twenty thousand fled the city, including, for a time, Washington, Jefferson, Knox, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who survived a bout of the fever. A Chickasaw delegation on its way to see the president turned back on hearing of the epidemic in the fall. But the visits resumed the next year. On Saturday afternoon, June 14, 1794, Washington welcomed a delegation of thirteen Cherokee chiefs to his Market Street home in Philadelphia. They were in the city to conduct treaty negotiations, and the members of Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, and Colonel Timothy Pickering — were also present. In accordance with Native American diplomatic protocol, everyone present smoked and passed around the long-stemmed pipe, in ritual preparation for good talks and in a sacred commitment to speak truth and honor pledges made. The president delivered a speech that had been written in advance. Several of the Cherokee chiefs spoke. Everyone ate and drank “plentifully of Cake & wine,” and the chiefs left “seemingly well pleased.” Four weeks later, Washington met with a delegation of Chickasaws he had invited to Philadelphia. He delivered a short speech, expressing his love for the Chickasaws and his gratitude for their assistance as scouts on American campaigns against the tribes north of the Ohio, and referred them to Henry Knox for other business. As usual, he puffed on the pipe, ate, and drank with them.
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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jean Guerrero, Lauren Weber, Doug Bock Clark, Dara Horn, and Dan Nosowitz.

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After World War I, Horror Movies Were Invaded By an Army of Reanimated Corpses

"J'accuse!" 1919.

W. Scott Poole | an excerpt adapted from Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror | Counterpoint | October 2018 | 23 minutes (6,219 words)

The murderous folly of the Great War chilled western Europe to the bone, and the new, gruesome entertainment of the horror film became neither escape nor catharsis but rather a repetition of trauma. Telling these stories sometimes had the effect of ripping the scab from the wound so that it never became healthy, or grieving until grief became an end in itself. At times, the stories included social criticism. In all cases, the horror film included a long, angry procession of unquiet corpses.

Not everyone would agree, or at least believe, that horror films carry so much weight. “You are reading too much into the movies” is a fairly common response to such claims. “They’re just entertainment.” This idea of course has its own history and, paradoxically, it begins with a writer who thought that the films made after the Great War did contain coded messages about the era. He saw in them a dangerous message that explained the path from Germany’s defeat in 1918 to its resurgence as a threatening power twenty years later.

Siegfried Kracauer left Germany in 1933, emigrating to Paris the same year that Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. After the beginning of World War II and the invasion of France, he fled for the Spanish border with the renegade essayist Walter Benjamin in the summer of 1940. Unlike Benjamin, however, Kracauer found a way to make it to the United States, where a Rockefeller Fellowship awaited him in the spring of 1941, thanks to his fellow exile the philosopher Max Horkheimer. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art offered Kracauer a position that involved studying the German films made between 1918 and 1933, a task he hoped might yield some clue as to what had become of his homeland. Read more…