Yadkin River Story is a multimedia documentary project about a stretch of the Yadkin River near the East Bend and the people who have made the river a part of their lives. Photographer Christine Rucker is my partner. We are working with the Yadkin Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization, with grants from the N.C. Humanities Council, the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Foundation and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. We started a blog in October 2009. A photo exhibit opened in September at the Yadkin Cultural Arts Center with the launch of the web-based multimedia project.
The article, which appeared in the August issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, is the story of a domestic violence case that ended in the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl in spite of court orders that were supposed to protect the family. The girl’s mother, Vernetta Cockerham, recently won a settlement of $430,000 in a lawsuit against the town police department for its failure to enforce the protective order. I followed the story when I was state editor at the Winston-Salem Journal and when I left the paper I knew I needed to find a way to tell Cockerham’s story to a larger audience. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism selected the article as a Notable Narrative.
2009: It Takes a Village to Work for Justice
It Takes A Village to Work for Justice, which appears in the summer issue of the Duke Law Magazine, is the story of a group of Duke Law School faculty, students and alumni who have worked pro-bono for a North Carolina inmate named Kalvin Smith who they believe is innocent in the near fatal beating of a store clerk for which was convicted. I investigated Smith’s case when I was a newspaper reporter and was thrilled at the opportunity to tell the story of his advocates.
2008: Murders at Grassy Creek
In Jan. 2008, three men were shot and killed at a remote Christmas Tree farm on the North Carolina Virginia border. I edited a series about the crimes, working with reporter Monte Mitchell on crafting a narrative and with the web, photography and graphics editors on a multi-media web production that would supplement the stories. The project won a 2008 D. Tennant Bryan award from Media General, the newspaper’s parent company.
2006: Money, Loyalty and Power
North Carolina’s speaker of the house was under investigation by federal and state authorities, but in the winter of 2006 James Black still seemed invincible. I was the newspaper’s investigative reporter; David Rice was the newspaper’s capitol reporter. The newspaper teamed us up to produce an investigative political profile of Black. He gave us a rare interview and when he told us about a meeting he had with another legislator at the I-HOP in Salisbury we knew we had a colorful lead for a complex story. A year after the story ran, Black was convicted for taking a bribe at the I Hop.
2005: Breakdown In Mental Health
In fall 2005, the newspaper’s medical reporter began reporting on the financial crisis at the local mental health agency. Sensing a bigger story, the editors teamed him up with me to take a deep look at the forces throwing the local system into such disarray. We found a story about a failed reform effort that threatened the state’s entire mental health system and the lives of thousands of patients. The series won the investigative reporting award from the N.C. Press Association.
2005: Crime and Science: Part One | Part Two
DNA is considered the gold standard in forensic evidence. But what happens when the scientists get it wrong? The series focused on the case of Leslie Lincoln, who was charged with her mother’s murder based on mistaken DNA analysis. The series won the Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists. A year after the series was published, Lincoln was acquitted on the murder charges.
2004: Attack at the Silk Plant Forest
Shortly after Darryl Hunt was exonerated, another innocence claim fell in my lap with a call from the Forsyth County Jail. Kalvin Smith said that he had been wrongly convicted in the near-fatal beating of a pregnant store clerk. Many inmates make such claims, but the case against Smith seemed flimsy from the get go. There was no DNA evidence to prove Smith’s innocence, but my series raised many questions about the evidence used to convict him. A citizen’s committee reviewed Smith’s case and his lawyers with the Innocence Project at Duke University remain committed to winning him a new trial.
2003: Murder, Race, Justice: The State V. Darryl Hunt
My interest in wrongful conviction began in the spring of 2003, when Darryl Hunt won the right to a new round of DNA testing in a 20-year-old murder case. I had heard his story since I first stepped foot in the newsroom, in 1987, that a young black man had been convicted in the murder of a beautiful newspaper editor and that there were a lot of questions about his guilt. By 2003 the newspaper had a new crew of editors and what was old news to many of us was new to them. The paper assigned me re-investigate Hunt’s case, which meant reading thousands of pages of court transcripts, appellate briefs and police reports, and dozens of interviews, mostly with people who had no interest in revisiting the past. I wrote an eight-part series about Hunt’s case that showed how flimsy the evidence was against him. A month, later DNA evidence identified the real killer and Hunt was released and later exonerated. The series won numerous awards, including the Tobenkin award from Columbia University.
SELECTED COLUMNS, 2001-2003
I was the metro columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal from 2001-2003. Three days a week I looked for stories that would put a human face on local, state and national issues. Sometimes there was no issue, just a good story that deserved 20 column inches on the front of the metro section. Always I looked for stories that would give readers a sense of community in a region that is quickly losing its sense of place and history to growth and development.
During the 1990s, Forsyth County’s two medical centers replaced tobacco as the community’s largest industry. I covered all aspects of medicine, from the business of medical insurance, to breakthroughs in medical research to public health. The beat produced incredible human stories as well as those about power, money and influence. A 1996 series about persistently high rates of infant mortality won a public service award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
2022: Afterword, Inside: Voices From Death Row, published by Scuppernong Editions. Order here.
2022: "Five teenagers. Recanted confessions. Convicted. Sound familiar?" published in The Washington Post, March 30, 2022.
2022: "Telling the Stories of the Wrongly Incarcerated," the author's reading list of books that inspired her while researching and writing Beyond Innocence, published by Literary Hub.
2019: “Take them to the River”
An excerpt from a larger project entitled “Sacred River,” the story takes readers on a Mardi Gras journey through New Orleans with the Saint Anne’s marching krewe to scatter ashes of beloved relatives and friends in the waters of the Mississippi, with photographs by Christine Rucker. Thanks to the Sunday Long Read for sharing the story.
Produced in collaboration with photographer Christine Rucker, Dance for the River provides audiences with a new way of experiencing the Yadkin River through dance, film, and photography. Many thanks to the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University, dancers at UNCSA, and Yadkin Riverkeeper.
I am grateful to Andrew Park and Duke Law School for supporting and publishing this exploration of Darryl Hunt’s life after exoneration. I am grateful, too, to the Marshall Project, Sunday Long Read, and Nieman Storyboard for sharing the piece with their readers. Hear an interview with Frank Stasio on WUNC public radio.
Five women speak out publicly in Parents magazine about what it means to be a mom and terminate a pregnancy.
On the cusp of the most important abortion decision out of the Supreme Court in 20 years, Glamour magazine asked me to tell the story of DIY abortion through the voices of women who had taken matters into their own hands to end an unwanted pregnancy. Hear an interview with Madeleine Brand, of KCRW in L.A.
In the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris, North Carolinians speak out in support of Syrian refugees. The Nation magazine provided them with a national platform.
As is often the case in heated discussions about abortion, the voices of women who have had an abortion get lost. Glamour magazine asked me to talk to some of these women. Read what they had to say.
It was a pleasure getting to know Hussein, Aysha and their children as they made a new home as a refugee family in America. National Geographic published their story on its on-line news site Feb. 27, 2015.
The story looks beyond the rhetoric of abortion to the experiences of women facing an unwanted pregnancy and seeing the ultrasound, now required in many states before an abortion. Glamour magazine published the article in its December 2014 issue.
The series grows out of a trip I took to the Middle East in June 2014 to report on the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to understand the human toll of one of the largest forced migrations since World War II. The Winston-Salem Journal published the series in August 2014. WFDD produced an interview with audio clips, which aired at the same time. In some ways I returned more aware than ever of how little we know about the conflicts in the world. But the experience also confirmed for me that the people caught up in these conflicts are people with jobs and families, dreams and aspirations that have very little to do with the ideologies and politics driving the violence.
I spent a day with protestors who worry about the direction the Republican-led legislature is taking North Carolina and filed this dispatch with the The Nation magazine.
The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University provided funding for a collaborative project with Group Homes of Forsyth and the Sawtooth School for Visual Art to document the lives of six disabled adults. These stories raise age-old questions about what it means to be human. How do some of us communicate without spoken language? How do others use music to transcend limitations? What does it mean to live in community? And who defines what it means to be different? Ghree Lockard, an intrepid woman of 28, reminds us of the universal nature of disability. “Everyone has their own problems,” she says. “They just don’t know it, or if they know it, they like to hide it.”
Funded with seed money from Wake Forest University, “Sacred Rivers” is an ongoing multimedia, documentary project that explores the relationship between communities of faith and cultural traditions and America’s rivers.
The North Carolina Humanities Council featured the Yadkin River Story in the Spring 2011 edition of its North Carolina Conversations. The journal reprinted an essay I wrote for the project and several pages of Christine Rucker’s photographs.
Women of Reynolda tells the story of three generations of women who created, rescued and re-invented a summer estate in Winston-Salem that today houses a collection of American art. The article was published in the March edition of Our State magazine.