WTVT-Ch. 13 receives duPont Award for investigative reporting today
But reporter Doug Smith and the investigative team at WTVT-Ch. 13 will receive a singular honor in New York today, earning an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award for its series of reports on the wrongful conviction of truck driver Jean Claude Meus -- snagging one of broadcast journalism's most prestigious trophies.
The series, titled Small Town Justice, outlined how Meus received a 15-year conviction for vehicular homicide after a 2001 wreck in which he lost control of his truck and struck a van, killing two people. Meus maintained that a car cut him off, leading him to collide with the van, but an investigator who knew one of the victims pursued the theory that the victim had fallen asleep at the wheel. Smith's consistent reporting eventually helped win Meus a new trial, where a judge threw out the conviction.
I first wrote about Smith and Meus in 2005, when Meus' attorney John Travena first tipped WTVT to the case and tried in vain to win national attention. Back then, I speculated that TV outlets -- which had just gone crazy over the case of a kindergarten kid handcuffed in an elementary school, were cool to Meus' story because there wasn't any sexy videotape and zero interest in a wrongly convicted black man.
To Smith's credit, he didn't let such concerns stop him. He documented a similar incident in which a white truck driver who killed two people admitted falling asleep at the wheel and got a traffic citation. He also showed how two sisters of the woman killed in Meus' crash took up his case.
Now they've got a huge piece of hardware to hang on their shelves, evdience that investigative reporting can make a difference in rooting out the widespread disparities that continue to plague our legal system and our society.
Click below to read more about the series in a release provided by Smith:
April 18, 2008 (Wauchula, Florida) Two and a half years of investigative reporting by Fox 13’s Doug Smith finally paid off. As a result of his award-winning series, Small Town Justice, a truck driver sentenced to 15 years in prison is now a free man.
Judge Jeff McKibben threw out the conviction of Jean Claude Meus based on information and a new witness uncovered by investigative reporter Doug Smith. Smith first started investigating the case against Meus in August of 2005. Since then, Fox 13 has devoted more than two hours of news time to Smith’s reports, including a prime time news special which earned a regional Emmy Award.
“My hat really goes off to Doug Smith and Fox 13 for your diligent hard work making sure that justice was served for Jean Claude Meus,” said Curtis Stokes, President of the local NAACP unit.
In addition to winning regional Emmy’s in 2007 and 2008, Small Town Justice also received a Freedom Fund Award from the local NAACP and earned a regional Edward R. Murrow award for series reporting.
The story is set in a small southern town in Florida. Meus, a Haitian-born truck driver was just passing through when he lost control of his semi-trailer truck and overturned on a van. A mother and daughter died in the wreck. They were deeply loved by the town and this set in motion the wheels of injustice. Based on purely circumstantial evidence, a jury took less than an hour to convict the truck driver of vehicular homicide for falling asleep at the wheel. Even though tests proved Meus had no drugs or alcohol in his system, a judge sentenced him to 15 years in state prison.
Another twist in the story involves the victims’ family. After Meus’s conviction, family members met with him and became convinced it was truly just an accident and he should not be in prison. When prosecutors refused to listen, the family turned to Fox 13.
Doug Smith uncovered new evidence which backs the trucker’s claim that he was not asleep, but rather swerving to avoid another car when he lost control of his truck. Small Town Justice takes an unflinching look at the Florida Highway Patrol and the Hardee County State Attorney’s Office and examines their methods of gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. The series raises questions about race and the justice system. This is also the story of a family’s terrible loss and amazing spirit of forgiveness.