See what kind of impact journalism The Commercial Appeal did in 2023
Throughout last year our journalists sought to bring light to some of the biggest local stories, from the death of Tyre Nichols following a brutal beating from Memphis police officers who pulled him over last January to our deep reporting on the deaths at Shelby County jail.
On any given day you’ll get a mix of stories ranging from government and education coverage to stories about the Memphis Tigers, Grizzlies or high school sports. That’s the fuel that powers our journalism.
But it is our journalism that explains how systems work — or don’t work — and reveals something you likely did not know that defines The Commercial Appeal. Such stories are variously known as impact, watchdog and accountability journalism. We also strive to provide explanatory stories that help put issues and news events in context and explain why something is important. It is part of our mission to make the community better through our journalism.
Along with the impact journalism from The CA, we occasionally publish local impact stories from partners such as nonprofit news organizations MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, The Marshall Project and ProPublica.
In Memphis, of course, we had ample opportunity to do such stories in 2023, highlighted by our relentless and comprehensive reporting on the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, the FedEx worker who was severely beaten by Memphis police officers from a specialized unit after a traffic stop.
Officers could be seen in body camera footage being immediately aggressive with the 29-year-old skateboarder, pulling him from the car to the ground and yelling profanities at him. He died three days later. Protests followed. Investigations were launched, including a Department of Justice pattern-or-practice probe. Police officers were fired.
Our high-profile impact stories included a deep dive into the operations of the specialized SCORPION unit and a documentary and explanatory story on “What went wrong in Memphis” in the Tyre Nichols’ case. We did the documentary in partnership with USA TODAY’s States of America team.
Below are excerpts from five of The CA’s most memorable impact stories from last year:
Justice for Tyre Nichols began at historic pace. US is watching what Memphis does next
For most of the midday hour at the pulpit of Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church in Memphis, RowVaughn Wells gently closed her eyes, her right hand tightly clasped in the left hand of famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Her son was supposed to be there, she said. Crump was telling the reporters from around the world who filled the pews all the reasons why her son was not there, and would never be there again, Laura Testino reported in this story.
With his other hand, Crump shook a finger, punctuating the problems he sees in an institutionalized police culture that is anti-Black, and in Memphis’ SCORPION Unit, which he alleged has a pattern of excessive force.
“It happens far too much in America,” Crump said. “And we have to have this conversation over and over and over again until it stops.”
SCORPION Unit officer had prior reprimands, illegally searched man’s car
One of the four supervisors of the Memphis Police Department’s now-defunct SCORPION Unit had been suspended, sanctioned and received a verbal reprimand in separate internal investigations into “a domestic violence situation,” an unnecessary use-of-force incident and personal conduct violation, Lucas Finton reported in this story.
Lt. Dewayne Maurice Smith confirmed in testimony in a 2017 drug case he had received the punishments. Federal prosecutors would later dismiss the case after a judge found the testimony of Smith and another detective unreliable.
The cross-examination came during a motion hearing where federal defense attorney Tyrone Paylor asked about prior infractions.
Smith confirmed the first two with a “yes, sir,” but said he did not remember getting a reprimand for a personal conduct violation.
MPD’s SCORPION Unit was billed as a violent crime-fighting unit, but most of its cases were traffic violations and drug crimes
Lakethen Mason was driving home from work, from Midtown to Downtown, on a night in November 2022 when an officer moved to pull him over for an all-too-common violation — expired registration tags.
Mason — a 49-year-old documentary filmmaker, owner of Memphis Film Works and local activist — said he didn’t feel safe stopping on a dark and empty road, so he continued for a few more blocks and pulled into a well-lighted area. The decision seemed to anger the officer, he said.
“He said, ‘Oh, so you’re not going to stop for me? What’s your problem?’” Mason recalled. “My immediate reaction was to try to calm him down.”
You can find this story here from Lucas Finton and Kelly Puente.
52 deaths since 2016: Why Shelby County Jail’s mortality rates have been rising in recent years
Marcus Donald, 38, was scheduled for release from the Shelby County Jail in late November.
He’d already spent more than six months in the jail, commonly referred to as 201 Poplar, after his arrest, ultimately pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault.
But instead of going home with credit for time served, Donald was placed in a holding cell with another inmate.
That inmate, who had previously been charged with murder, strangled Donald to death, according to family and attorneys. He has been charged with Donald’s murder.
Donald is one of at least 52 people who, since 2016, has died in the Shelby County Jail or died in a hospital after transportation from 201 Poplar. Nearly 70 people have died in the custody of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in that time period, including individuals shot by deputies outside of the jail and two women who died in Jail East, the county women’s jail, Katherine Burgess reported.
With Memphis in May’s longtime leader set to retire, what’s next for beleaguered festival?
For more than a quarter century, Memphis in May had been the model of stability in Memphis, an organization built on the bedrock of two major cultural events: Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
But the last few years, and especially the last few months, have seen the nonprofit roiled by major changes.
In a statement announcing his departure, Holt said he stayed on longer in the job than planned in order to, “help guide the organization through the unforeseen challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as our displacement and eventual return to Tom Lee Park and the riverfront,” Holt wrote. “Having turned 65 this year and with a clear path forward for Memphis in May, it seems like the right time to pass the baton to our next leader.”
Mark Russell is the executive editor of The Commercial Appeal and South regional editor for Gannett and the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901/288-4509. You can also follow him on X at @markrussell44