Colloff’s name may not sound familiar to you initially. I hope after reading this post, you’ll be inclined to follow her work.
She’s a two-time National Magazine Award finalist and an executive editor at Texas Monthly, where she’s worked since 1997. Her writing has also appeared in The New Yorker and “Best American Crime Reporting.”
I took a class last semester called “Women in Crime and Justice,” and it ended up being one of my very favorites. We talked a lot about women as offenders and women as victims. Both of these topics were of special interest to me, but I also have just a general interest in reading about crimes and how detectives uncover certain crimes. (Yes, I do watch Criminal Minds, but I don’t sleep well afterward.)
Anyway, Colloff is an incredible long-form journalist. I’d like to particularly focus on her stories “Innocence Lost” and “Innocence Found,” which she wrote in 2011. They detail and address the unlawful arrest and jail of Anthony Graves. (Colloff is sort of known for doing stories on shady convictions.)
Graves spent 18 years in jail (12 on death row) for killing six people. He didn’t know them; another man admitted to doing it, and the evidence simply wasn’t there, yet he still spent an incredibly significant amount of time behind bars. (Actually, the evidence is sort of there in the beginning, but it’s simply a result of smoke and mirrors — thanks to a district attorney with an axe to grind.) Colloff uncovered the court documents and spoke with many of the people invovled in Graves’ case in order to understand why he was jailed and how the system had failed him.
It’s an incredibly frustrating read. Let me just put it this way — at one point, the man who did commit the murder admits that he did it alone, that Graves had nothing to do with it. But Graves still faces the death penalty. The court didn’t want to hear it.
It’s also an exciting read. A powerful and savvy attorney who is known for sending inmates to death row is assigned to do just that with Graves, but as she researches the case, she quickly realizes his innocence and the challenge ahead of her. She instead decides against taking Graves to trial again, having to explain to the families of those murdered that despite Graves earlier conviction, he is an innocent man.
But when Colloff writes of the moment when Graves is informed that he is free — that is when I really appreciate the simplicity of her writing and her ability to capture human emotion.
“On the table beside her was a dismissal order from the court filed at 3:57 p.m. that stated ‘We have found no credible evidence which inculpates this defendant.’ The decision to drop all charges had come so suddenly that the defense team had only learned the news earlier that afternoon. As Graves leaned against Casarez, he broke down.
“They stood together and cried for a long time. ‘Hey,’ Casarez said finally, smiling at the irony of what she was about to suggest. ‘Let’s get out of here.'”
Colloff’s story, “Innocence Lost,” was sort of credited with helping to prove his innocence. No big deal. “Innocence Found” details how that savvy attorney proved it and what life after jail would be like for Graves. What an incredible experience that would be.
Colloff recently did an interview with the Nieman Storyboard about her writing process, and she really has an interesting way of organizing her thoughts on paper. She said her mentor at Texas Monthly taught her to dump her notes, documents and quotes all into one Word file. She then has access to everything, and as she starts to group everything together, the story comes about naturally. Now, I’ve never really done what would be considered a “long form” story, but I feel I am entirely too scatter-brained to handle writing a story like that in that manner. But, hey, to each his/her own.
I’m off to read another of Colloff’s stories, “Hannah and Andrew.”