In our latest Notable Narrative, “The Exoneration of Bennett Barbour,” Dahlia Lithwick tells the story of a man wrongfully convicted of rape 34 years ago on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Years after he finished serving his sentence, Barbour recently learned of evidence that exonerates him, evidence uncovered as part of a widespread effort to test archived DNA samples.
Barbour has company. The State of Virginia has uncovered scores of other innocent convicts whose names it is only reluctantly revealing. And in all likelihood, behind those people now known to be innocent stand many others who have also been wrongfully convicted but for whom DNA evidence is nonexistent or no longer in any condition to test. The article calls into question Virginia’s record of convictions and its commitment to justice.
In her story, written for Slate and edited by Will Dobson, Lithwick consistently underplays the drama. She spends just two sentences describing the moment that attorney-advocate Jonathan Sheldon found Barbour and told him of his exoneration – and she does it with a quote.
But providing some emotional connection is key, and Lithwick knows that Barbour – a human being who was robbed of five years of his life, his new marriage and his relationship with his daughter – is the heart of her story. And so she uses his experience as a narrative thread running through what is largely an explanatory piece.
How do you tell a powerful story that addresses systemic flaws when you’re doing an explanatory, rather than a scenic, narrative? Lithwick and Dobson have provided a primer.
The image above (pulled from the scrolling bar of the single-page version of the Slate story) shows how often Barbour’s name comes up in the text, which reflects pretty accurately how often the story returns to his experience. It’s worthwhile to look at the pattern of appearances over time.
“Barbour” crops up repeatedly in the beginning of the story, which lays out his wrongful conviction and recent exoneration. Then Lithwick pulls away for the next four paragraphs, diving into how the review of DNA evidence was triggered and carried out in Virginia. At the end of that section, she circles back to Barbour. A quick blitz of references is followed by a longer digression – 10 paragraphs and a graphic – explaining attorney Sheldon’s role in depth. It mentions Barbour only once, in passing, right in the middle. Another quick blitz of five references to Barbour is followed by a final loop away to delve into the state crime lab director’s strange explanations of current procedures. And then Lithwick brings the piece home, paraphrasing Barbour himself on the cost of the state’s obfuscation and delay. A man long sick with bone cancer (an illness we learned about in the lede), Barbour explains that he nearly died without being able to prove his innocence to his own daughter.
Not every story will be written in scenes. And in this case, the writer deliberately avoided many of the personal details about Barbour and his life that had already been covered by local news organizations. But Lithwick shows how finding the narrative touchstone in an explanatory piece and returning to it in the right rhythm can draw readers through complicated events into a better understanding of not just one person’s tragedy but widespread injustice.