Former Angola inmate editor: Too much 'fear-mongering' in criminal justice coverage

BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) -  

Kerry Myers says journalism is about lessons.

"One of the things I've loved most about being a journalist is that I've learned something on everything I've ever covered," he said Monday at the Press Club of Baton Rouge's weekly luncheon.

Myers, as an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary, served as editor at The Angolite. The award-winning magazine is produced by prisoners at the facility. He says his time in prison changed his impression of inmates.

"They're probably some of the more civic-minded people you'll ever meet, because they understand what loss is," said Myers. "They understand what they've lost. They understand, in many cases, the loss that they've created."

Myers, now 61, served 26 years in prison. He was convicted in 1990 for second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Janet. Officials found her beaten to death with a baseball bat. Prosecutors theorized that he and his neighbor, William Fontanille, conspired to kill her. Fontanille served 21 years for manslaughter, while Myers was sentenced to life. The case inspired a 1994 TV movie, "Murder Between Friends" and author Joseph Bosco's book "Blood Will Tell: A True Story of Deadly Obsession."

Last December, Gov. John Bel Edwards granted the state pardon board's request to set Myers free, citing widespread support from Janet's relatives, scholars and activism. An online petition named "Free Kerry Myers" circulated, and a deputy warden testified that he received the lowest recidivism risk assessment score he had ever seen.

Myers doesn't talk much about his wife's death. He spends much of his effort advocating against what he considers unfair coverage of defendants and inmates.

"Certainly the media failed me," he said. "They've failed so many over the years by using official-speak and painting wide brushes on so many people, and by not asking the deeper questions."

He notes what he considers a key lesson in his journalism career, one he learned at The Angolite.

"What the editor, the reporter, the journalists and the publishers want aren't always coinciding," he said.

While The Angolite receives no state funds, its publisher is the prison.

"I used to tell people, 'I'm the guy who gets yelled at,'" Myers said. "But I was also defended in many cases."

He cites a story from 2007, when an employee at the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in suburban New Orleans committed suicide in his office. Other papers devoted a few lines to it, before Myers obtained access to a suicide note, in which the employee admitted to 13 years of blindly rejecting every appeal filed by prisoners without attorneys. Myers learned that he denied more than 500 inmates this way, including himself.

"All the media had to do was ask one or two additional questions, dig into it, and find out what was going on," he said.

Myers' journalism won him a 2011 Prevention for a Safer Society Award, awarded by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. When asked about the award, he emphasized his focus on words.

"When they throw out words like 'violent criminal' and 'nonviolent criminal,' you'll never hear me say that," Myers said. "That's twisted thinking, to say that because someone has done something in their life, then they must be this, that they have no propensity to be anything but that."

Myers expresses support the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Package, which prompted the release of some 1,900 inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses on Nov. 1, though he argues that inmates convicted of violent offenses should be considered for release more frequently.

 

"That's a conversation we're afraid to have," he said.

Myers, who was published earlier this year in the Columbia Journalism Review, remains on parole through 2020. The Angolite lives on, with another inmate editor now at the helm.


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