In Manifest Injustice: The True Story of a Convicted Murderer and the Lawyers Who Want Him Freed, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Barry Siegel recounts the Arizona Justice Project’s decades-long struggle to free Bill Macumber, a man they contend was wrongfully convicted of murder.
During your research, what did you learn about the criminal justice system?
My work on this book reconfirmed what I already thought about the criminal justice system. Although the Bill Macumber case is highly unusual, aspects of it reflect much of what transpires in courtrooms across the country. To learn the truth by means of a trial is surprisingly and uncomfortably difficult. Invariably, courtroom transcripts are full of complex and conflicting evidence. In light of what DNA testing now suggests about the legal system, it’s impossible to say how many innocent people sit behind bars. Most attorneys acknowledge that criminal trials aren’t searches for truth. In constructing stories, lawyers recognize only the evidence consistent with their theory of the case. So do the police, the forensic experts, the judges, and—finally—the jurors. Everyone sees what they want. It finally amounts to which narrative you want—or need—to believe.
Since you began working as a journalist, how has the system changed?
It has never been easy to win postconviction relief for prisoners, but it has grown increasingly difficult over time. More and more, judges start with the presumption that petitions have no merit. The entire legal system is overwhelmingly concerned with getting cases processed. The system has become progressively more resistant to looking at claims of actual innocence. Most judges just aren’t interested. So they make it almost impossible to get relief on appeal, throwing down burdensome obstacles and slavishly placing adherence to procedural rules above the possibility of manifest injustice.
You like to come late to events to report on them —how efficacious is that approach in the age of Twitter, when immediacy is of the utmost importance?
There will always be readers hungry for quality, long-form narrative. Look at the nonfiction bestseller list: half the books are well-researched, reconstructed narratives. Look also at the expanding digital venues for long-form narrative, such as Byliner, Atavist, and Kindle Single. In a way, I think the age of Twitter (if it indeed exists) leads readers to appreciate even more the writer who slows down and adds perspective, who aims for what is enduring, not immediate.
How did winning a Pulitzer affect your life?
On the day we learned I’d won, my daughter (then 14) had to agree to take a hike with me in the mountains near our home, as a way to celebrate. She doesn’t like hikes and usually won’t join me, so this was a special treat. I’m not sure it affected my life, but I savored the moment. Other than that, life went on. Soon after I won, my editors at the LA Times were back to asking, “What have you done for us lately?”