Mon March 17, 2014 9:46 am By Jake Silverstein


Every murder involves a vast web of people, from the witnesses and the detectives who first come to the scene, to the lawyers and the juries who examine the facts, to the families of the victims, who must make sense of the aftermath. The more traumatic the killing, the more intricate the web. In the summer of 1982 the city of Waco was confronted with the most vicious crime it had ever seen: three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, for no apparent reason, at a park by a lake on the edge of town. Justice was eventually served when four men were found guilty of the crime, and two were sent to death row. In 1991, though, when one of the convicts got a new trial and was then found not guilty, some people wondered, Were these four actually the killers? Several years after that, one of the men was put to death, and the stakes were raised: Had Texas executed an innocent man?

This week, with the release of its April issue, Texas Monthly will publish “The Murders at the Lake,” an in-depth examination into the Lake Waco murders, for which one man (David Spence) was executed, two others (brothers Gilbert and Tony Melendez) were given life sentences, and a fourth (Muneer Deeb) was sent to death row only to be released after six years.

Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall spent a year studying the case, conducting dozens of interviews with the principal and minor players and reviewing thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions, and affidavits, from the case’s six capital murder trials and one aggravated sexual abuse trial. The result is a 25,000-word piece that examines the case through the viewpoint of five people: a patrol sergeant who investigated the crime; a police detective who became skeptical of the investigation; an appellate lawyer who tried to stop Spence’s execution; a journalist whose reporting has raised new doubts about the case; and a convict who pleaded guilty but now vehemently proclaims his innocence.

This article, which will be serialized on texasmonthly.com over the next two weeks, is not a legal document; some of the people involved in the case are dead, others don’t remember much, and even others—including the patrol sergeant who investigated the case and the DA who prosecuted it—refused to be interviewed. Rather, this is a story built around the question that has haunted so many people for so many years: What really happened at the lake that night?

Stay tuned. The first installment of this remarkable story will be published on Wednesday. 

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Wed December 18, 2013 1:16 pm By Jake Silverstein

Yeah, we blew it. On our January 2014 Bum Steer Awards cover, David Dewhurst, the Houston Texans, and the Astros--who all took the magazine's top honors for Bum Steers of the Year--are shown running away from "Steerzilla," which is demolishing the Astrodome. Pretty funny cover, and pretty spot on, except that the baseball players are shown wearing the Astros uniform that was retired in 2012. And not only that, but several of the players featured weren’t even on the Astros roster last year.

Seeing as how this is exactly the sort of goof we relish mocking in the Bum Steers issue, the whole thing seems almost intentional, as if we were trying to make the point that the Astros barely even fielded a team last year; or that, because of a lousy deal with Comcast, few fans could even see their games (several of which received a 0.00 Nielsen rating); or that they had actually ceased to exist once they’d decamped from the National League. Alas, it wasn’t intentional. We just blew it. And for no good reason either, seeing as how a number of the folks who saw the cover before it went to press are Astros fans and/or live in Houston. So in the spirit of the season, we hereby award a bum steer to ourselves for this spectacular oversight. We earned it. Oh, how we earned it. 

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Mon December 16, 2013 9:40 am By Jake Silverstein

On Friday the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University announced that Texas Monthly executive editor Pam Colloff had won the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. This is, of course, not the first major award for Pam in 2013. Just seven months ago she won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. But the Lyons is possibly even harder to win than an NMA. It’s given once a year to a single journalist or media organization in all the world. In recent years, winners have included an incredibly brave Libyan citizen journalist, Mohammad Nabbous, who was killed during the uprising in his country; and Marcela Turati, whose coverage of the drug war in Mexico for Proceso has been truly admirable. Pam’s award recognizes the remarkable work she’s done in recent years on the subject of wrongful convictions and other innocence cases.

The Nieman fellows, who select the award’s recipient, had this to say about Pam’s work: "Colloff blends painstaking reporting about the mistakes and misconduct committed by law enforcement with wrenching personal details about the shattered lives of those wrongly convicted. When many of her colleagues have moved on from the sensational murder trials, often content that justice has been served, Colloff treads a lonely road, digging through boxes of court documents, reinterviewing witnesses and questioning the motives of prosecutors and the competence of defense attorneys. Her investigations highlight how a system designed to protect can be corrupted into jailing the innocent and letting the guilty roam free, sometimes to kill again. The power and humanity of her stories has helped force reexaminations into several cases and given them an impact far beyond the borders of Texas, where they take place.”

I’m thrilled and incredibly proud of Pam for winning this kind of recognition, which calls attention to two of her greatest virtues: conscience and integrity. I truly can’t think of a better pair of words to describe the way Pam approaches her work. If you’ve read many of her stories over the past sixteen years you’ll know just what I mean (if you haven't, maybe start here and here). Pam’s dedication to truthfully rendering the lives of her subjects, in all of their complexity, is deeply impressive. It takes a ton of work—coaxing interviews out of reluctant subjects, traveling hundreds of miles for a single detail, poring over mountains of trial transcripts, writing and rewriting draft after draft. But it all comes together in the powerful union of high-stakes public interest reporting and propulsive, compassionate storytelling. Some years ago, thinking of all this gritty work, I started calling Pam “Tenacious P.” Over time, that got shortened to just “Tenacious,” which is generally how I greet her in the hallways here at Texas Monthly, and how I’ll toast her this week for this remarkable accomplishment.

Kudos, Tenacious!

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Fri September 20, 2013 9:10 am By Jake Silverstein

Our October cover is the twenty-fourth Texas Monthly cover to feature a firearm but the first to feature a wheelchair or an attorney general; it is likely to be the first and only Texas Monthly cover to feature all three at once. Just as likely is the outcome it predicts, that the man in the chair with the gun will become the next governor of Texas. I can think of at least two people—Tom Pauken and Wendy Davis—who might dispute this. In an interview last week with senior executive editor Brian D. Sweany, Pauken, who is running against Abbott for the Republican nomination, objected to what he referred to as “the divine right of succession.” But like it or not, in the fact-based world Abbott is the prohibitive favorite’s prohibitive favorite to win both the nomination and the general election next November. Which brings us to this month’s cover story, also by Brian. It’s the deepest, most illuminating story ever written about Abbott, full of interesting details about his upbringing, his family life, and the 1984 accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. We’ll be posting an excerpt of the story online Monday. The full piece will be on newsstands Wednesday, September 25. For now, please enjoy (or object to) the cover, the only Texas Monthly cover to feature an attorney general, a wheelchair, and a gun; and, barring an unlikely outcome, the first to feature the state’s next governor.

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Tue August 13, 2013 9:38 am By Jake Silverstein

By nine p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the second Saturday in December last year, we knew exactly who would be on the cover this September. That was the night that Johnny Manziel became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy. As soon as the holidays were over, we began to set in motion the process that led to our September cover story, by S. C. Gwynne (the story, “Who Is Johnny Football?” will be online later this week and on newsstands next week). This was as no-brainer an editorial decision as they come. Manziel—a fourth-generation Texan, raised in Tyler and Kerrville, playing quarterback for Texas A&M—was straight out of central casting. He’d almost single-handedly carried the Aggies into the national spotlight, which they had been striving for so long to reach. The concept for the cover was simple: he was the Aggies’ Superman. We called contributing photographer Randal Ford (himself an A&M grad) and told him to start researching poses for the Man of Steel.

Almost immediately, however, the story began to shift, as Manziel’s tumultuous off-season generated wave after wave of (mostly negative) publicity. By summer, pretty much every sportswriter in the country had weighed in, most of them scolding Manziel for failing to realize that he was not simply a twenty-year-old football player but actually a character in a morality play. Manziel, it quickly became apparent, is the kind of reckless celebrity America loves to obsess over, Lindsay Lohan in pads. In a matter of months, he had achieved a dubious renown, culminating in the dramatic news that the NCAA was investigating him for receiving money for autographing souvenirs to be sold on the memorabilia market. Like most Manziel stories, this one exploded, despite the fact that, at the outset, there was no hard evidence of the alleged violation (at the time our September issue went to press, this was still the case). But as Sam’s story smartly points out, this viral quality is part of Manziel’s special power: stories about his off-field exploits are as unstoppable as he himself is on the field. He has a knack for getting into trouble and narrowly escaping, only to find himself in another fix, which he somehow wriggles out of, only to get tangled up again, and so on. His greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.    

Which is to say, he’s still a kind of superhero, even after all this. It’s just that, like most modern superhero stories (Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, Hulk), the saga of Johnny Football has ominous overtones—the hero himself is far from perfect and the world he lives in is hopelessly corrupt. Does anyone still believe that college football—a business valued at more than $1.2 billion per year—is truly an amateur sport? Or that it’s fair for the players—who are largely if not entirely responsible for creating that revenue, and for whom, in an increasingly dangerous game, there is no guarantee of future NFL income—to receive nothing more than free tuition for a degree that many won’t even stick around long enough to complete? (Senior editor Jason Cohen doesn’t.) No, Manziel is not the paragon of idealistic virtue represented by the original DC Comics Superman. That character, with his Boy Scout morality and regal bearing, belonged to a simpler era. Johnny Football is something far more interesting: the brilliant but catastrophic superhero our decadent world deserves.

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