Five University of Washington Tacoma student journalists embarked on an investigation this summer, resurrecting the case of a 2006 shooting death of an AWOL Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.
After reading thousands of pages of court transcripts and interviewing people involved — including the man convicted — the group of female students sought to answer two questions:
• Was Irvin Dale Carter Jr., a Hilltop man with known gang affiliations at the time, wrongfully convicted for killing his friend?
• If the same evidence were presented but the suspect was a different race, gender or socioeconomic class, would the jury reach the same verdict?
The answer to the first question was somewhat unclear in their minds, but the answer to the second was indisputable.
“If any of us, as white females, were in Irvin Carter’s position, we wouldn’t be in jail,” said student journalist Danielle Burch who is majoring in ethnic, gender and labor studies.
The students’ investigation into the circumstances surrounding Carter’s conviction in the shooting death of his friend Julius James Williams is part of a three-part series the school newspaper, The Ledger, is publishing this month. The first installment ran Nov. 10, the next will run Monday (Nov. 17) and the final installment will run Nov. 24.
Carter was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison for the shooting of Williams outside Bryant Montessori school in 2006. Williams had been AWOL about a month from JBLM when he was shot five times, allegedly because of an argument over a missing gun.
After reviewing ballistic reports and forensic evidence and learning of new witnesses who came forward after the conviction, all but one of the UWT students say they believe Tacoma police should reopen the case.
Chelsea Vitone interviewed the lead detective in the case, detective Brian Vold, as well as one of the eyewitnesses and Carter.
“I feel like detective Vold should take another look, but I don’t know that it needs to be reopened necessarily,” said Vitone, a writing studies and communications major.
But she agrees with her colleagues that if any of them had been tried under the same evidence as Carter, they would not have been convicted.
The students take no position on Carter’s proclaimed innocence.
“We’re not trying to prove anyone innocent, we’re trying to point out this shouldn’t send anyone to jail,” said communications major Joanna Sappenfield.
Although only the first segment of the three-part series has been published, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said his office stands behind the evidence presented and the conviction. He also noted the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.
“Our goal in this case is the same as our goal in all our cases, we want to get to the truth and seek justice,” Lindquist said in a prepared statement. “We always keep our minds open, but we have not heard anything that sheds doubt on the unanimous jury verdict.”
Request for comment from Vold was not immediately returned.
This is the first time the school’s newspaper has embarked on such a large-scale investigation. The idea came from adviser Niki Reading.
She modeled the project after a similar program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She identified a court case worthy of a second look, and lined up five students she felt were capable of taking it on. Not all of the students are aspiring journalists, but all are members of the newspaper staff.
“When I approached them, I told them there’s no guarantee you’ll even find anything to publish,” Reading said. But she also told them “if you do it right, this could be something really cool and unique for our campus.”
The students said they learned more through this case than they ever would through textbooks. Tracking down known gang members and going inside a prison to interview convicted felons are different experiences than any scenario a professor could describe in a classroom, they said.
“It’s so great to not have that be abstract anymore and have a concrete understanding of ‘OK this has real consequences,’ ” said Brittany Hale, a political science major.
Eva Revear, who wants to pursue journalism professionally, said the project solidified her career choice. Without giving anything away, she described what readers can expect from the next two stories.
“The next two installments are going to focus on the trial and the things that were not presented to the jury in a way they should have been,” she said.