This Editor Turned What A Sheriff Said Was 'Not News' Into A Pulitzer-Winning Series
Jeffery Gerritt, editor of the Palestine Herald-Press in East Texas, hadn't planned on writing a series about inmates who were dying in county jails.
But he thought the death of a woman in jail, and the local authorities' silence on the matter, was worth pointing out to his town of about 19,000 residents.
"Her name was Rhonda Newsome," Gerritt told NPR. "And the local sheriff would not give me any information about her. In fact, on one of the very few phone conversations I had with him when I first got here, he told me a death in the jail is not news."
The story led to several others on Newsome's death and the deaths of other people in county jails across Texas. That series of stories won Gerritt and the Herald-Press the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing.
Gerritt's series, "Death Without Conviction," shed light on flaws in Texas' system of review for deaths in county jails, where inmates have not been convicted of a crime. Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy praised Gerritt, saying he "courageously took on the local sheriff and judicial establishment, which tried to cover up these needless tragedies."
Gerritt said the series wouldn't have taken on the scope it did without a well-placed records request.
He said that Texas Rangers responded to his information request with reports and investigations. "Legally they could have withheld it," Gerritt said, "but for some miraculous reason they gave it to us."
As Gerritt reported, Newsome, who suffered from hypertension and Addison's Disease, was asking to go to the hospital for up to five days before she died. Before jail officials finally decided to attend to her, she had been on the floor bleeding for three to four hours, according to his reporting. The information from the Rangers showed that jail staff attempted to use a defibrillator on Newsome that didn't work.
With those details on hand, Gerritt decided to make what the sheriff deemed "not news" a major project, working nights and weekends while also editing the paper's three journalists to fill the pages of the Herald-Press' daily editions.
The series, despite the Herald-Press' relatively limited reach, has sparked statewide change.
For example, some state legislators have committed to holding hearings on the issue of unexamined deaths in jail. And according to Gerritt, there wasn't even an official, agreed-upon list of jail deaths in Texas before his series.
"The attorney general's office and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards' office agreed to start meeting regularly and exchanging notes on their lists," Gerritt said. "That's a simple thing, but at least they're going to have a more accurate number of how many people are dead in these jails."
Despite publishing stories that drove change at the statehouse, Gerritt said his investigation was somewhat overlooked by larger media in the state. State-wide publications such as The Texas Tribune and newspapers centered in Dallas and Houston didn't pay much attention to the Herald-Press' work, though Gerritt said after winning the Pulitzer he got flowers and a nice note from the Houston Chronicle.
"I think part of it was an attitude of 'eh, it's the Palestine Herald-Press. So what,'" Gerritt said. "Even though I know they were aware of it and the legislature was aware of it, I think most of the media in Texas, the big dogs, pretty much ignored it. Now they're paying a little more attention."
And Gerritt himself was also surprised by the Pulitzer win. He worked previously for news outlets in Michigan and Ohio, and has won awards in the past, but he said a Pulitzer had always seemed out of reach. Gerritt said the paper's publisher, Jake Mienk, had to convince him to even put it up for consideration.
Last Monday, the day the prizes were announced, Gerritt says he tried not to think about it.
"I thought, 'Even though I know I'm not going to get it, I'm going to be disappointed,'" Gerritt said. "So I'm not even going to think about it. I was out getting a cup of coffee and I just kind of put it out of my mind."
When Gerritt made it back to the paper's parking lot, Mienk greeted him with a bear hug.
"I collapsed," Gerritt said. "I just went on my knees and I started to cry."
The win marks a major turnaround in Gerritt's journalism career. He said he thought his career was on a "downswing" after missing an opportunity at a much larger newspaper several years ago.
"I had almost an offer to be the editorial page of one of the better, biggest, and best papers in the country," Gerritt said. "They flew me out there and I just blew the interview, to be honest. I was a little demoralized after that."
So Gerritt took the offer to edit in Palestine, a place he says he's learned to love since he started there in 2017. Now with the Pulitzer Prize in tow, Gerritt says he's anything but demoralized.