Storytelling prize season wound down last night with the presentation of the National Magazine Awards, the Pulitzers of the American magazine world. Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff took the “Ellie” for her two-part narrative series on a man wrongly imprisoned for 25 years in the violent death of his wife. “The Innocent Man” topped stories from Byliner, GQ, Mother Jones, The New Yorker and Wired, in a category tweaked, this year, to combine feature and profile writing. (Texas Monthly also won for Public Interest, with a Mimi Swartz story on women’s health. You can find the full list of winners and finalists here.)
Colloff recently annotated “The Innocent Man” for Storyboard, as part of our growing Annotation Tuesday! series. Here’s a snippet from Part 1, with Storyboard’s comments in red and Colloff’s in blue :
A running gag between them involved Michael calling out, “Bitch, get me a beer!” Interesting details, because this moment (and their history of squabbling) was turned against Morton in court. What was your perception of Michael Morton before you began your reporting, and how and why did your opinion change, if it changed at all? I’m using a detail that later is cast in a very dark light by the prosecution, but I’m presenting it here as Michael and Christine saw it, which was as just a joke. A lot of the media coverage following Michael’s 2011 exoneration made him appear almost saintly, because he did not want revenge and he handled his wrongful incarceration with such grace. But that’s not who he was back in 1986. I wanted people to see his rough edges and his imperfections so that he would be a real person. Also, I wanted to provide some context for the way that investigators in the case saw him. His crudeness was, I think, part of what led investigators to think he was capable of violence. As for where this detail came from, the marigolds came from the trial transcript, and I asked Michael about it in more detail, which is when he explained their placement in the yard. —something they had once overheard a friend of a friend shout at his girlfriend. Christine would respond by telling Michael to go screw himself. “He teased her a lot, and he would go right up to the line of what was acceptable, and sometimes he went over it,” Gersky said. Referring to an attractive friend of theirs who stopped by the house one day wearing shorts, he told Christine, “Now, that’s the way you should look.” Great detail; source? A friend of Christine’s told me this and our tireless fact-checker, David Moorman, ran it past Michael before publication.
And from Part 2:
“When I got here, they used to put all new arrivals in the field force,” Michael One thing I meant to ask in Part 1: How did you decide to refer to him as “Michael” and not Morton? Excellent question. I always wrestle with whether or not to refer to a protagonist by his/her first or last name. In this case, there were practical reasons to go with his first name. Christine had the same last name, so it ended up being an easy decision. (Calling him “Morton” and her “Christine” seemed awfully weird.) But generally speaking I like the immediacy of using someone’s first name, when it’s appropriate. wrote, referring to inmates who were assigned to work on the prison farm. That had been three years earlier. Now 47, he was too old to be doing hard physical labor all day long, he told Garcia. His face had settled into the softer contours of middle age, and his sandy blond hair was going gray. “Try to imagine twenty to forty men,” he continued, “shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, swinging their [hoes] in unison and chopping weeds that are, I swear to God, six to ten feet high. Or, on the bad days, working in a huge irrigation ditch, skinning the banks down to bare earth Hey, not bad, the writing. I know! I get a lot of letters from prison, and I can assure you that none of them sound like this. and then dragging the chopped-up vegetation back up the banks. It’s long, hard, backbreaking work.
A few other Colloff favorites from the Storyboard files:
-Her piece “‘Why’s this so good?’ No. 65: David Grann and the death row prisoner.” In our ongoing series, Colloff wrote about Grann’s treatment of the questionable case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas for killing his children.
-Her chat with Storyboard about her story on a mother convicted of killing her son with salt.
-Her piece about the innocence of death row inmate Anthony Graves, which we included in a “What we’re reading” post.
Congratulations, Pam, and thank you for your work!