Nothing But Fireworks at The Washington Post

DerekHawkinsCroppedBy Dean’s Intern Derek Hawkins at The Washington Post

It’s been nothing but fireworks since I started working on the metro desk at The Washington Post. Since late-winter, I’ve focused exclusively on cops and courts, reporting on some of the highest-profile cases in the region and the country.

Most recently, I spent two weeks in Baltimore covering the criminal trial of Caesar Goodson Jr., the police officer who faced the most serious charges in the death of Freddie Gray. Goodson drove the van in which Gray, a 25-year-old black man from West Baltimore, suffered a fatal neck injury in April 2012. He was the only officer charged with murder in Gray’s arrest and death, which sparked protests, demonstrations and later riots in the city.

The trial drew national attention, not just because of the high stakes, but because of the drama that unfolded in the proceedings. At one point, tensions between police and prosecutors boiled over when a state’s attorney accused a detective of “sabotaging” their case. The detective, who was a witness for the defense, in turn told the prosecutors they “lacked integrity.” It’s the kind of thing you see all the time in Law And Order, but rarely in real life.

After an eight-day bench trial, a judge found Goodson not guilty on all counts — a huge blow to prosecutors, who have yet to secure a conviction in the case. Baltimore officials and some news media had braced for riots, but the city was quiet throughout the day, with demonstrators gathering peacefully outside the court to protest the verdict.

I also had a chance to cover gavel-to-gavel one of the Washington region’s biggest gang indictments to date. In March and April, I sat in on the federal murder and conspiracy trial of members of the brutal street gang MS-13, which has been linked to killings, beatings, drug trafficking and prostitution in the area. I reported on the trial from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, a court known for handling terrorism and organized crime cases.

The trial was complicated and gruesome. Prosecutors accused six members of MS-13 of stabbing and dismembering two people, shooting another, and attempting to murder a fourth. A half-dozen other gang members were indicted but pleaded guilty, agreeing to cooperate with the Justice Department. I discussed the crimes in my stories, putting together a narrative of the slayings from testimony and court documents. My favorite dispatch from the proceedings was a piece on a confidential FBI informant who infiltrated the gang for more than a year and helped prosecutors build their case against the defendants. It offered a rare insight into how prosecutors and investigators use confidential informants to gather evidence. In one of the most serious ethical dilemmas of my career, my editors and I had to decide whether to identify the informant in my story or leave him anonymous. We decided not to name him out of concerns for his safety.

The trial ended with an across-the-board guilty verdict against the six gang members. All face life in prison. It was a particularly difficult trial to cover because there were so many defendants — each of them with two defense attorneys — and not all of them were charged with the same crimes. The Freddie Gray officer’s trial was no walk in the park, especially because the national spotlight was on us the whole time, but it was much simpler to report on by comparison. Even the judge in the MS-13 case called it “epically complex.” Still, it was a wonderful challenge and a fascinating trial to watch.

So far my time on the metro desk has been exciting and eye-opening. I’m very fond of my colleagues and editors at The Post, who have allowed me to cover things that I’m deeply interested in and have great significance for the public. I’ve become a better writer and reporter thanks to them.