Relatives of Timothy Coggins embrace at the conviction of his murder was solved 34 years after he was killed

Relatives of Timothy Coggins embrace after the 2018 murder trial of Franklin Gebhardt, who was one of two men convicted for killing Coggins 35 years earlier.

On Oct. 9, 1983, the body of Timothy Wayne Coggins, a 23-year-old Black man, was found in the woods off a power line easement in Griffin, Georgia. He had been stabbed dozens of times and an “X,” like the emblem in a Confederate flag, was carved into his stomach. He had been dragged behind a truck, then left to die beneath a massive oak tree, which was known around this small rural town as “the Hanging Tree.”

For thirty-four years, the crime remained unsolved, sidelined after a half-hearted investigation by the county sheriff’s’ office, which included members of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, however, Coggins’ two killers sit in prison, the result of a relentless cold case investigation and prosecution that brought answers to an extended Black family haunted for almost four decades by the official indifference to their loss.

The case is now the subject of two narrative forms: an ABC 20/20 documentary, “In the Cold Dark Night,” directed, written and produced by Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Stephen Robert Morse, and a magazine story in GQ, “A Brutal Lynching. An Indifferent Police Force. A 34-Year Wait for Justice,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery, who also served as the film’s executive producer.

Timothy Coggins, 23, who was the victim of a racially motivated murder in 1983

Timothy Coggins, 23, was the victim of a racial motivated murder in rural Georgia in 1983. His murderers were brought to justice in 2018 after a cold case investigator revisited the case.

Both are immensely powerful narratives that use radically different techniques to answer the same question: How the murder of Timothy Coggins was finally solved. Lowery unspools it in a vivid 3,638-word narrative built largely on reconstruction. The documentary provides a riveting account in 82 minutes, whittled down from 1,000 hours of filming.

Morse’s team finished filming in 2018 when Coggins’ murderers were sentenced in court. As executive producer, Lowery viewed the film and provided feedback through multiple edits. He then made his own journey to Griffin, re-interviewing the sources in the film, scouring records, even walking around the empty club where Coggins was last seen the night he was killed. “The death of Mr. Coggins,” an investigator told him, “was very clearly a lynching.”

Both stories cover essentially the same ground: the bereaved survivors, the killers who plead ignorance, the dogged investigation and murder trial. But while Lowery relies on prose to reconstruct the story of a crucial evidentiary discovery, Morse has his cameras rolling when investigators tunnel into a suspect’s well, vacuuming up a truckload of mud and debris, which turns out to include a bloodstained shirt with seven stab wounds that proved crucial to the jury’s verdict. Morse also borrows from the game plan of many crime documentaries by using several dramatically recreated scenes, based on official records, evidence and interviews “to fill some gaping visual holes from 1983 that we were unable to fill.”

Lowery’s story begins with a prediction from Timothy Coggins’ dying mother, Viola Coggins-Dorsey, who is speaking with her daughter in a reconstructed scene:

“They found out who killed Tim,” Coggins-Dorsey repeated insistently. “I ain’t gonna be here for it, but they’re gonna get who killed Tim.”

Morse’s film opens with moody Gospel music and drone shots of Spalding County, the rural farm county 45 miles south of Atlanta where the murder occurred, and voiceovers from Blacks in Griffin talking about the pain of segregation. It draws on archival footage of white power rallies and a professor to describe the history of racial killings.

Lowery’s magazine piece, meanwhile, steps back with a hefty nut section that puts the story in the historical context of lynching in the Deep South, capped by a powerful quote from Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells:

“White men lynch the offending Afro-American, not because he is a despoiler of virtue, but because he succumbs to the smiles of white women.”

While the murder was linked to a drug deal gone bad, both stories argue persuasively that Timothy Coggins’ greater sin, the one he paid for with his life, was dating a white woman despite warnings from a close family friend. At their conclusions, each version of the story features a moment of reconciliation and forgiveness as Timothy Coggins’s relatives embrace one of the killer’s devastated daughter. The film calls on Pulitzer-winning journalist and civil rights historian Hank Klibanoff to put this case in the context of a larger American story:

“This is not a whodunit. This is the why, and the why is history. The why is a way of looking at what is going on. You can’t look back at a history (of) ‘Well, of course we punish white people for killing black people. We always have…’ There’s no history of that.”

Nieman Storyboard reached out to Lowery and Morse separately to learn about their collaboration, the difference in their narrative approaches and the story’s relevance in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Journalist Wesley Lowery

Wesley Lowery

We start with WESLEY LOWERY, who reported his magazine narrative after most of his advisory work on the film was finished. Lowery was a national correspondent for The Washington Post for six years, where he was part of the team that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for a data-based exploration of the reasons behind and victims of police shootings. He was covering Congress in 2014 when he was sent to Ferguson, Missouri, to report on the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown. He left The Post earlier this year to join the CBS News program “60 in 6” and work on collaborative projects between print and broadcast.

Tell us how your magazine story about the 1983 lynching of Timothy Coggins came about. The investigation had stalled for three decades before one of the cold case investigators on rotation saw things others had missed. But how did you find out about it, and how did you sell it to editors? I ask because failed prosecutions are far from rare in this country; so why this particular case?
I remembered hearing about this case when the charges were first filed. It’s the kind of viral headline we often see — “Charges filed in 34-year-old Georgia lynching” — that then quickly disappears. I kept the case on my list of things that might be worth following up on and then promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward a bit, and I got a call from Stephen Robert Morse, a documentary filmmaker who I’d known for a few years. As it turns out, he’d also seen the viral headlines and had been struck by the case, and had embedded a film team with the local police and prosecutors as they re-investigated. At that point, I agreed to help out.

My intention, even while consulting on the documentary, was always to do a written piece on this case. One of the things I often think about is how so much journalism and writing is done at the point when we have the least information: the day after the killing, the day the charges are filed. In this case, by waiting, I was able to have all of the details — the full case file, the full trial transcripts, long interviews with everyone involved — at my fingertips as I wrote. As a result, I was able to step back and pitch this as a full narrative reconstruction, which in my experience editors find a bit more intriguing.

What were your biggest reporting challenges? Were there any sourcing issues with a story that had happened so long ago?
One thing that was tough was how much time had passed, and how much of the original case file had gone missing. But, in general, a lot of those holes were able to be filled through interviews, and almost everyone talked.

Going back to one of my earlier points, often most of the attempts to interview people come right in the moment that the news breaks, and they are understandably overwhelmed or unsure if they want to talk. But I’ve found that once a little time passes, most people are willing to talk. In this particular case, it was helpful that there was also a documentary crew attempting to track folks down and building relationships with them.

Your story is studded with specific details: the description of Timothy’s horrific wounds; “The Hanging Tree,” which was the site of the murder; the threats against his family, including a note “You’re Next” wrapped around a brick and hurled through their window; the music played at the “People’s Choice” club where Timothy was seen dancing with a white woman the night he murdered. Were they all in the case records, or did some come from witness memories? How did you select these from the voluminous record?
Some came from the police records, others came from interviews with witnesses and others from the characters themselves. In a piece this long, I think it’s really important to let the reader be there with you. You want them to feel like they know Timothy Coggins, to see the People’s Choice club (I spent an afternoon there, just kind of walking around the empty building), to see the tree where he died, and to feel like they’re in the courtroom during the trial. It’s an old journalism cliche that good reporting makes good writing. But that’s something I swear by. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly talented writer — I have a limited vocabulary, and haven’t ever been particularly poetic. But the thing I can do is report like hell. I can read and re-read documents and figure out the details that will make the story pop.

The GQ story carries your byline, and you were listed as an executive producer of “In the Cold Dark Night.” How did the roles differ? What are the main differences between the magazine story and the documentary?
Stephen and his team were really the driving forces behind the documentary. By the time I came on-board they had done interviews, tracked down documents, and had one of the first cuts finished. At that point, I gave several rounds of feedback journalistically in terms of unanswered questions, storytelling wise in terms of pace and order of operations, and then of course about tone, drawing from my history of covering stories with racial implications and histories. This was a project that was in the works for years, and has been edited and re-cut a number of times. Each time, I’d send a new round of notes.

Once the documentary was placed with ABC, I began working (on the magazine piece). At this point I’d seen the documentary probably two dozen times. But I wanted to start my process from scratch. I re-interviewed half a dozen vital sources, re-read the entire police case file, poured over hundreds of pages of trial transcript, and went back down to Griffin, Georgia, to visit the places that I’d be describing. Basically, I re-reported everything, and tried to write the story as if I hadn’t already seen a documentary on the case, because I knew most of my readers would not have seen the film yet.

… I think it’s our job to lay out what we can about why something happens because it helps our reader understand how an event fits into the larger storybook of American history. ~ Wesley Lowery

The documentary has a ton of exclusive footage — sit-downs with dozens of people, re-enactments with actors, and then remarkable video from law enforcement going down into Frank Gephardt’s well and from his trial. The challenge, which I think the team did an amazing job with, was showcasing all of those things with the proper spotlight while also telling a cohesive narrative. There are tons of characters and voices and scenes. Lots of important things to balance.

The written piece is a bit different in that it’s built off of interviews with a handful of key characters, backed up by thousands of pages of documents. Long, detailed interviews with lots of little follow-up questions: What type of music did the People’s Choice play? Which artists? What was the big song that summer? Stuff like that. Rather than throw a million different characters and scenes at the reader (for example, the search of the well — a key moment in the documentary — is relatively quick in the magazine piece) the written piece tries to tell the story through the eyes of three or four key characters.

One thing I was particularly proud of was being able to bring in, in the lede of the piece, Timothy Coggins’ mother, who had died prior to the documentary filming and so whose voice would have otherwise been excluded.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in narrative structure and voice between a print story and a documentary? What do you see as the strengths and limitations of each approach?
In a documentary, especially one without a narrator, the “voice” is determined by the interviews, the music, the lighting. While in a written piece, I get to ghost narrate; it’s all my words setting the tone and guiding the reader.

The documentaries I enjoy most are able to pack in a level of detail — sometimes specific anecdotes and rabbit holes — that might feel out of place in a written piece. They’re able to introduce side characters and concepts. Written pieces often have to avoid that; when I write, I’m able to load up with specific details that serve the story telling, but rarely can afford to diverge into a side anecdote without the risk of losing the reader.

Both forms allow for context, but even then, it looks and feels different. I think that’s why the documentary and my GQ piece feel so different, even as they tackle the same case and the same issue.

In the print story, you step back from the narrative to provide a history of lynching in the Deep South, culminating with a powerful quote from Ida B. Wells. What are the decisions you needed to make about placement and proportion?
One thing I’ve learned over the course of my writing career is that there are no isolated incidents. Everything is connected to context and to history. The lynching of Timothy Coggins can’t be disconnected from the history of Georgia, the history of lynchings in the South, and the history of Black people in America. It’s one thing to describe in detail what happened. But, though it’s not always possible, I think it’s our job to lay out what we can about why something happens because it helps our reader understand how an event fits into the larger storybook of American history. To understand how this could have happened in 1983, you have to first understand the frequency and impunity with which it was happening for decades prior to Timothy Coggins’ death.

Reporting for this piece — both the print and documentary versions — obviously had to start long before the Black Lives Matter demonstrations gained intensity following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police (May 25, 2020). Both the GQ story and the documentary appeared in mid-July, as anti-police protests continued around the nation. Did any of that play into decisions about timing and focus of your story?

These projects began well before the death of George Floyd and the current round of protests, but it’s clear that this moment has created a renewed appetite for storytelling that grapples with issues of race, and particularly racism against Black Americans. In moments of protest and unrest, we’re forced as a nation to consider whether perhaps we have not fully outrun our past. And I think a moment like that, a moment of national introspection, was the perfect moment for this project to be put out there in the wild.

Documentary filmmaker Stephen Robert Morse

Stephen Robert Morse

Now we turn to STEPHEN ROBERT MORSE, whose documentaries on crime, politics and social issues have earned international awards, including Emmy nominations for “In the Cold Dark Night” and the Netflix hit “Amanda Knox.” He has made films in both the U.S. and Europe, where he held an Erasmus Mundus journalism fellowship; a recent project is about a bi-national baseball team that splits its games between Mexico and Texas. In 2016 he launched OBSERVATORY, a company focused on “lean filmmaking.”

Tell us how you came to tell the story of Timothy Coggins’ murder and how long you and your team spent on the documentary?
It all starts with the Internet: My business partner Max Peltz and I were looking for new projects. He received a CNN alert about arrests being made in this case in October 2017. We arrived in Spalding County for our first shoot three months later in January 2018. From there, it was a steep learning curve as we tried to piece together a ton of information about a complex case. We concluded our shoots in December 2018. We shot 1,000 hours that were cut into our film.

Describe your filmmaking process and how it differs from the methods Wesley Lowery used for GQ magazine about the case?
I have, sadly, never shadowed Wesley in the field. But, as a former print journalist myself, I know there are many differences. For example, if someone is saying something great just as a plane flies by overhead, I have to yell “Cut!” and stop the shoot, sometimes ruining an interviewee’s momentum or emotion. I know it’s for the good of the project, but little things like that — a siren here, a phone ringing there — easily kill an interview. In print, you don’t have to worry about these issues, but you have a whole different set of concerns. I found it beautiful how Wesley was able to give context in his piece from the year 2020 that supported the reporting we did in 2018. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Wesley’s additions make this story current.

Your true-crime documentary, “Amanda Knox,” focused on a sensational case involving a young American woman who spent four years in an Italian prison, through multiple convictions and acquittals, she was acquitted by the Italian Supreme Court. Why did you decide to explore another true-crime case?
I’m not into the “true-crime genre per say, but I am into legal issues as they intersect with other societal issues. Crime is a lens through which to tell stories. For example, with Amanda Knox the real questions were about whether her arrest and imprisonment would have happened to if she was a man. When you’re starting a project within the criminal or legal genre, you have no idea how long it will take. I started the Amanda Knox project as a 25-year-old wide-eyed young journalist, and trying to tell an important story.

This time, with the Coggins’ story, it was a bit different. You just have to look at statistics to see there is systemic racism in the U.S. and it isn’t going away. It sounds foreboding when you think of it this way, but as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hank Klibanoff says in our film, there simply isn’t a history in America of white people being punished for murdering African-Americans. This is a fairly intriguing and alarming premise, especially as we didn’t know the outcome of this case when we started making the project.

“In the Cold Dark Night” opens with a portrait of a segregated Spalding, Georgia, setting the stage for a chilling tale of racial hatred which then plays out as a cold case investigation and prosecution that finally put Timothy Coggins’ murderers behind bars. How did you settle on that structure and what was the process for executing it?
My colleagues and I spent hours first scripting out what we thought would be a four-part series. This was originally envisioned as a series because there are many more complex layers that we wouldn’t be able to dive into in the time allocated on television. But we pitched the series and nobody wanted it. We were determined though, so we re-cut the piece as a film, where we were again forced to get rid of so many pieces we loved, while trying our hardest to retain as much of the core story of Timothy’s life and murder as possible.

The film relies on a moody soundtrack, powerful interviews, archival and live courtroom footage, stitched seamlessly into scenes. But unlike some true crime documentaries, it lacks a narrator. Why?
This is such a special project for the very reasons you described. We set out to take a 360-degree view of this case, and to do this we had to rely on so many characters to open up to us and tell their stories. Building the trust to do this didn’t happen overnight.

In “Amanda Knox” we didn’t use a narrator. In “EuroTrump” (following Dutch right-wing candidate Geert Wilders’ bid for prime minister) we didn’t use a narrator. I find narration to be a bit cheesy in many documentaries, unless it is specifically told from one person’s POV.

In this project we had a diverse chorus of voices, from family members to current and former law enforcement officials to prosecutors to jurors to a diary the sheriff found to help us tell the story. We’re incredibly thankful that the team at ABC/Disney/Hulu was willing to innovate on their 20/20 format to allow us to tell this story with no narration.

Adding music, as with sound effects, was long considered a journalistic no-no over concerns that it manipulated the mood. How do documentary filmmakers work through those ethical considerations?
There were many, many back-and-forth conversations between our editorial team about appropriate and inappropriate places to use music. In general, we felt that it we noticed the music manipulating anyone on our team, or if someone criticized the music choice, it had to go or be changed. Music is meant to evoke feelings but not to be noticed overtly. We had a high bar, and our composer, the immensely talented Harry Brokensha, who also worked on “EuroTrump,” did a fantastic job.

This was augmented by the work of Yiannis Spanos, our world-class sound designer, who went above and beyond with his incredible team to present sounds in a way that were both authentic to time periods, as well as to the story.

You described Wesley Lowery’s GQ story as a companion to the film. How did the two of you come to work together on this project?
I had long admired Wesley’s journalism, and fate brought us together in Philadelphia on a rainy autumn night in 2016. We talked about our ambitions, and we realized that in many ways they were aligned in terms of topics like systemic racism, justice, policing, etc. Wesley was an incredible sounding board throughout the process. As a journalist, I respect his intuition, and also how he calls out the higher-ups in journalism when they’re acting hypocritically. It might be my New York roots, but I have a similar no-BS attitude and respect that Wesley has that, too.

In the Cold Dark Night” uses recreated scenes to depict the night of Timothy Coggin’s horrific murder in 1983, but relies mostly on dramatic interviews, official records, archival footage of white power rallies and then follows the investigation and murder trial until its successful conclusion in 2018. How do you decide the balance of elements?
As a documentarian your first resources are what you have: interviews, evidence, archive. After that you have to see how many holes you still have left in your project. For this project, there were still some gaping visual holes from 1983 that we were unable to fill, which left us with a few choices. In general, and this is often dependent on budget, there are three key ways to tell stories of the past visually:

  1. Re-creations.
  2. Animations
  3. Symbolism

This was a horrific murder, no doubt. Yet our team didn’t think that animations or symbolic images would suffice to get the message across to the audience; they simply wouldn’t have been appropriate for this story. So we made every attempt to use tasteful and accurate yet real re-creations based on numerous descriptions, case files, and evidence.

What is your goal when you recreate events and what do you rely on to ensure accuracy?
Your goal is simply to give as accurate a visual depiction as you possibly can. Sometime it can be more abstract, but you want the audience to feel the feels, so to speak.

Crime is a lens through which to tell stories.  ~ Stephen Robert Morse

A key scene in the film is the discovery of evidence in a well beside one of the suspect’s trailer. How were you able to be on hand with your cameras for these and other seminal events in the film?
There was a lot of good timing involved in this event, and we happened to have arrived back in Georgia a few days before this occurred in April 2018. We had also earned the trust of many members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation by this point, too. They gave us a heads-up prior to the operation taking place, which allowed us to make sure our four-person crew was ready to shoot.

Some of the most disturbing scenes in the film are those that show the murderers’ relatives in denial about Frank Gebhardt’s and Bill Moore’s crimes? How did you persuade them to take part in the film?
We were honest about the film we were making. We said we wanted to present all sides and opinions. Similarly to our initial approach with the Coggins family, at first it was necessary to spend time without the cameras rolling, building a trust and explaining what we were attempting to accomplish.

Trust is really the only way to build long-term sustainable career in this business.

More than one source says the presence of white supremacy lingers in Spalding to this day. So what do see as the central message or takeaway of your film?
There are many messages of our film, but in the end it has to be a dual message of hope and forgiveness: If Americans can’t learn to accept one another despite differences and to live peacefully with each other, we’ve got big problems ahead.

Chip Scanlan won numerous awards as a newspaper reporter, then taught writing at The Poynter Institute from 1994-2009, and now works as a freelance writer and writing coach.  His credits include The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post Magazine and The American Scholar; two essays were listed as notables in Best American Essays.

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