criminal justice, faith, institutions, literary journalism, murder, prison, violence

My Brother’s Keeper

It is rare that I promote my work–I’m bad at that–but this one is more urgent. In fact, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.

I’d like to bring to your attention my February cover story for Pacific Standard Magazine, “My Brother’s Keeper: When her brother is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit, one woman takes on the corrosive culture of capital punishment.”

The article describes Terri Been’s fight to save the life of her kid brother, Jeff Wood. A 44-year-old man with a learning disorder and mental health issues, Jeff has languished on death row in Texas for the past 22 years. During trial, Jeff, who drove the getaway car in a robbery, was allowed to basically represent himself. He received no mitigation, and the prosecutor, Lucy Wilke, used the notorious “psychiatrist” James Grigson, also known as Dr. Death, to prove to the jury that Jeff will “with absolute certainty kill again” (even though, as you will learn in the piece, everyone agrees that he never killed anyone in the first place). Grigson agreed to testify, even though he never even met Jeff, let alone examined him.

It is no exaggeration when I say that I have never written a more important, more traumatizing and more time-intensive piece.

Jeff’s execution–his second execution date, in fact–was stayed in 2016 because of the taint of Grigson’s testimony. (His first execution, in 2008, was stayed because of his mental health issues.) Jeff’s family is expecting the courts to respond to their Habeas Corpus petition in the coming weeks. There are two possible outcomes: Either he will be granted a new trial or he’ll receive a third execution date.

I hope you’ll consider my article about Jeff and his family’s struggle.

(Photos by Jérôme Sessini)

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criminal justice, prison, reading, writing


A few months ago I encouraged my prison pen pal Dean Faiello to write about the difficulties of being a writer in prison. Correctional officers had just destroyed his typewriter, and he had to go back to writing by hand. We went back and forth for a while, with me editing his piece and making suggestions on what to add and what to leave out. His essay just got published in Lithub.

“As I write this piece, March Madness is taking place. It is 7 am and my fellow prisoners are gathered in the dayroom of the Cayuga Correctional Facility around a flatscreen TV, reliving last night’s basketball game. The final score was tallied eight hours ago, but the men are still fighting for points and disputing calls. Last night, a battle took place on the basketball court and in the dayroom. Men cheered, jeered, shouted and cursed.

“Because it was still too dark in the dorm room to write—on the weekends, the lights don’t come on until 2 pm—I chose the dayroom, a raucous romper room of men watching sports, arguing and playing dominoes by slamming the plastic tiles down onto a Formica table. Here, even chess is a trash-talking contact sport.

“Prisons are not set up to inspire writers; I have few choices of where to put down my piece of paper and write. That’s the whole idea of prison rehabilitation—limit the choices and temptations that daily life offers, and hopefully, men will learn to make the right decisions. But the reality is that many of us simply find a way to get what we want. Prison makes us smarter criminals.”

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discussion, interview

A conversation about “Truther Love” on Nonfiction Podcast

A couple of months ago Longreads published “Truther Love,” my story about the dating (and mating) habits of conspiracy theorists. I am honored to be featured on the Nonfiction Podcast, in conversation with “lifelong nonfiction geek” Matt Pusateri. Listen to Matt and me talk about how the story originated and what the reporting and writing process was like.


Other notable contributors include Jessica Ogilvie talking about her story “The Revolutionary Routine of Life as a Female Trucker” and Lane DeGregory, about “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck.”

art, gender, photography, stereotypes, violence


The Guardian

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Captain Wright, one of the subjects in transgender artist Ria Brodell’s paintings, lived until his death in 1834 with Mrs Wright and an abundance of rabbits. They were “respectable gentlefolks”, according to Brodell’s extensive research. When Captain Wright died, his neighbors were astonished to learn that he had a body that would be assigned as female. Demoted to a “creature” by the newspaper, his body attracted a crowd of curious spectators. Captain Wright is one in Brodell’s series Butch Heroes, which reimagines historic men who were assigned as female in the format of Catholic holy cards. The portraits – some of which are currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle as part of the show Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects – are touching and amusing at times. They speak eloquently to the fraught history and present of the transgender community.

It’s an interesting moment for trans art in the US, as arts organizations large and small are finally bringing recognition to an ingenuous people and powerful movement. The Museum of the City of New York features Gay Gotham, a show that chronicles queer creative networks in 20th-century New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art is in the process of nearly doubling its footprint. It also recently created the Hunter O’Hanian Diversity Art Fund to collect artworks from primarily female and transgender artists. Yet Donald Trump’s election has given the LGBTQ community new reasons to fear for their safety. Mike Pence advocates for “gay conversion therapy” and Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which would give businesses and landlords the right to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Since the election, 43 anti-LGBTQ incidents have already been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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criminal justice, death penalty, poverty

Does This Man Deserve to Die?

IMG_0852 copy

Texas Monthly, July 29, 2016

Jeffrey Wood and Daniel Reneau had only known each other for a couple of months when, on the morning of January 2, 1996, Wood waited in the car as his new friend entered a Texaco station in Kerrville. When Wood, a 22-year-old with no prior criminal record, heard gunshots, he went inside the store to find the attendant, Kris Keeran, shot dead. Wood says that Reneau then pointed his .22-caliber handgun at him and forced him to steal the surveillance video and drive the getaway car.

Witness reports led police to Reneau and Wood, and the pair was arrested the next day. Reneau, who confessed to the crime, was convicted of capital murder in 1997 and sentenced to death. He was executed five years later, in 2002. Wood didn’t pull the trigger, but prosecutors tried him for capital murder under the Texas Law of Parties, which holds that someone can be held liable for an offense committed by another person. A jury found Wood responsible for either intending or anticipating the murder Reneau committed and sentenced him to death. His execution is scheduled for August 24, 2016.

Both Wood’s family and his lawyer have long maintained that his trial was flawed from beginning to end. A jury first found Wood incompetent to stand trial, and he was committed to a psychiatric institution. Less than three weeks later, Wood was determined competent by a psychiatrist to stand trial. After he was convicted, he tried to represent himself during his sentencing, but the judge denied that request, effectively finding him mentally incompetent to do so.

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Sign the petition to save Jeff Wood’s life

art, criminal justice, photography

Artists Grapple With America’s Prison System

“Angola Prison, 1980,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.

The New York Times, March 11, 2016

By Sabine Heinlein

For several weeks in February and March, the Whitney Museum’s fifth-floor gallery has been drenched in the slamming of gates, the rattling of keys and the bellowing of prisoners and guards. The artist Andrea Fraser recorded the sounds at Sing Sing, the infamous prison 34 miles up the Hudson River, then fed them into a gallery that’s roughly the same size as the prison’s A Block.

“Down the River,” her commanding work, alludes to the practice of separating slaves — and prisoners to this day — from their families and sentencing them to backbreaking labor on the South’s cotton plantations. It is a show that prods viewers to consider “the institutional and symbolic polarization that increasingly defines American society,” Ms. Fraser said.

Artists around the country are grappling with America’s incarceration system, as a subject and a social force. Like Ms. Fraser, Cameron Rowland’s show at Artists Space engaged a privileged art world with the economic mechanisms behind mass incarceration, focusing on how our society benefits from prisoners’ labor.

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criminal justice, prison, public policy


Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider have asked prisoners to paint and draw people they felt should be in prison: the CEOs of companies that have destroyed our environment, economy, and society. The resulting portraits are featured in an amazing new book, titled CAPTURED: PEOPLE IN PRISON DRAWING PEOPLE WHO SHOULD BE. “We present this project to help expose crimes masquerading as commerce,” the book’s accompanying website states.

You can click on the paintings and drawings on the website and see the crimes committed by the artists and by the companies’ CEOs and chairmen. An oil painting by Garrett Rushing, who is serving 17 years for drug trafficking with a firearm and possession of meth with intent to distribute, features Michael Corbat, the CEO of Citi Group, for example. Among the crimes Corbat committed are misleading the government into insuring thousands of risky home loans and deceiving investors by concealing the extent of its exposure to toxic subprime debt, fraud, illegal credit card practices and theft. (Corbat “stole over $14 million from customers by ‘sweeping’ positive balances from their clients’ credit card accounts into their general fund.”) Also featured are the CEOs of Walmart (for bribery, looting the public, public endangerment, stealing workers’ wages and tax evasion) and Exxon Mobile, and the chairman of The Nestle Group.




I was scared of dentists and the dark
I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations
Oh, all my friends are turning green
You’re the magician’s assistant in their dreams

I will forever link this song to a magical night in Lima last week. My husband Giovanni​ and I decided to go to a famous Chifa restaurant, which blends Chinese and Peruvian culinary traditions. I love to cook and eat and was very excited. We had to take a cab from the street because the hotel was incapable of calling us an affordable car service. We read that it is not safe to hail a cab from the street. Things happen.


An oasis at the bottom of the Colca Canyon. Daunting, but we made it.

Things happen. Lima is crazy congested. As the taxi stood idling in a bottleneck, we saw two men cramming large sacks of paper into a mid-sized car. Once the car was completely packed, one of the men then crammed the other man headfirst into the car. The second man was eventually stuck horizontally between the paper sacks, his face squished against the car window.

Our driver didn’t know where he was going. He kept mumbling, “Más o menos…” On the expressway people drove like maniacs. Worse than New York, if that’s possible.

After 45 minutes we arrived at Chifa Titi. It was spectacular, with glimmering disco columns, mirrors and something I only vaguely remember as glistening purple. There was an aquarium with a large suckerfish stuck to the side of the glass. An old lady with blonde-dyed hair and dark sunglasses sat at a table with a tiny old man. They seemed to be regulars; the staff eagerly gathered around them. The food was amazing. Fresh and unusual. We ordered Chaufa, fried rice with wild mushrooms, served in a little bowl; with it we had a huge portion of vegetable stir-fry with cashews and duck breast with fresh pineapple. The food had depth; it was crisp and colorful. You need good quality ingredients, and you need to know how to cook a vegetable to exactly the right consistency to achieve Chifa Titi’s results.


At the salt flats of Maras

After we ate, we asked the owner for a cab. He told us one of his staff would hail a cab from street. “Is it safe?” I asked again. “All we can do is write down its registration number before you get in. But things happen,” he said. When we got out into the dark, a black car with tinted windows stood in front of the restaurant. The car, the waiter said, had just dropped off patrons. We got in. The tinted windows didn’t feel right to me. The fact that the man didn’t turn around to greet us when we got in. He didn’t speak. He took a route through dark alleys, away from the congested expressways we had taken to the restaurant. I had no idea were we were. For 15 endless minutes I felt like we were driving around in circles. I asked Giovanni if he felt safe. He said yes, but didn’t sound very convincing. He pointed at the pictures of two babies stuck to the driver’s console. “Look!” he said.

Do people who love their babies rob and murder, I wondered. “Speak to him,” I whispered. I have always found safety in talking to strangers. Once you begin chatting, the other person becomes more predicable. Not safer, just easier to read. As a result, my strategy has always been “tell me, tell me, tell me.” Giovanni is different. He mostly keeps to himself; talking to strangers strains him.

Just then a beautiful, soothing song came on. “Just tell him I like the music,” I said. “Mi señora…” Giovanni began. The song was “Riptide” by Vance Joy.

“My wife likes the music.”

The driver seemed relieved and started talking about the radio station, doble nueve. It has been around since 1979. They play a lot of lounge music. Next thing we knew we were all talking, switching back and forth between English and Spanish. We drove past prostitutes a couple of blocks from the main square, and the driver asked me to roll up my window. Things happen here. When we arrived at the hotel, the driver got out of the car, and we shook hands.

We hired him the next morning to take us to the airport. His two babies are now 6 and 20 years old. He once rescued a sick street dog, nursing him back to health by cooking him dog-biscuit soup. To hail a cab from the street isn’t safe, he said.

One hour later we read that 41 percent of store owners in Lima have been victims of robberies, and 12 percent have been robbed at gunpoint.

racism, stereotypes

Black, Jewish, and Adopted

Illustration by Eric Mace

An article I wrote about what’s gained and lost in ‘cultural identity’ and religion when families decide to adopt across race lines just up on Tablet Magazine:

“What am I going to say to mom?” Lin asked her sister Martha. It was 1987, and Lin and her husband Peter had decided to adopt a black baby. A sculptor who carves and assembles wooden knots, bridges, and ladders, Lin was raised in an open-minded secular Jewish home. But she wasn’t certain how her mother would react to the prospect of having a black grandchild. “Tell her about adoption first,” Martha advised. “Give her a couple of weeks to let it sink in, and then talk to her about race.”

A short, wiry woman with untamed curly hair, Lin remembers calling her mother. “We’re going to adopt children but it will take a while.” Her mother’s response surprised her. “Not if you adopt black children!”

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