In the ever-shifting world of media, a cultural moment has been born. It’s the era of documentary journalism conducted on multiple “platforms.”
We’ve heard the Serial audio podcasts about a Baltimore murder case and, currently underway, the story of Bowe Bergdahl. We’ve binged on the Netflix video series “Making a Murderer,” examining justice in a Wisconsin murder case.
Good old-fashioned newspaper reporting provides the central thread in “Spotlight,” the Oscar-nominated movie focusing on a true story about uncovering widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston.
Documentary theater has been an outlet for investigative reporters in recent years, and that genre has arrived in Kansas City to extraordinary effect. A stage play, “Justice in the Embers,” has revived interest in a horrific event, the construction site arson and explosion in which six firefighters perished in 1988. Five persons were brought to trial. They were convicted and imprisoned, though doubts about their guilt have lingered. A federal judge denied a new trial in 1997 while recognizing “that the evidence in this case was not strong.”
An investigation by a reporter for The Star beginning nearly a decade ago raised new questions about other possible suspects. And Mike McGraw’s work provided the basis for the drama written by Michelle T. Johnson and produced by StoryWorks KC.
The play presents arguments of both guilt and innocence. It focuses on one of the defendants, Bryan Sheppard, for good reason. Recently, a Supreme Court decision has opened the door for a new sentencing hearing for Sheppard. He was 17 at the time of the explosion, and the high court agreed that a juvenile defendant should not be sentenced to life in prison.
In limbo is whether his attorney would be able to focus again on facts of the case or claims of Sheppard’s innocence.
Also in limbo, as post-play discussions have pointed out, is whether federal prosecutors have any interest in reopening the case. In a 2011 review responding to McGraw’s reporting, Justice Department officials acknowledged new evidence and found that, though other suspects existed, the new information “would not have called into question the defendants’ guilt.” McGraw, who received a heavily redacted copy of the report, has asked whether those suspects will be investigated, but he has not received an answer.
Having this new outlet for journalism — and for legitimate questions about justice — helps draw public interest to complicated and emotionally wrenching cases.