To those who insist all journalists are pinot-swilling, Bibb-lettuce-nibbling, four-hundred-thread-count-Egyptian-cotton-pillowcase-coveting elitists, I say: Meet Michael Hall. It’s not just that the soul-patched, ratty-flannel-shirt-wearing Army brat doesn’t present as Bill Buckley or Tom Wolfe. It’s that, in word and deed, he more than transcends the “man of the people” cliché. This is a guy who absolutely cares about—in the parlance of 2008 vice-presidential politics—average Americans of the Joe Six-Pack variety.
Or maybe that should be Joe Six-Year-Sentence-for-a-Crime-He-Didn’t-Commit. In the decade-plus since he joined our staff as a senior editor, alongside his stellar efforts on poverty-related issues, Mike has been our go-to criminal (in)justice guy, writing persuasively about wrongs perpetrated on unlucky souls by cops, prosecutors, and judges obsessed with clearing cases and logging convictions for the sake of doing so. Among his many memorable stories: “ Death Isn’t Fair” (December 2002), a National Magazine Award nominee that reinvestigated the case of alleged murderer Ernest Willis, who was ultimately released from death row; “ And Justice for Some” (November 2004), a searing indictment of the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals and its tendency to rubber-stamp rather than responsibly review the rulings of lower courts; and “ Death Letters” (September 2008), in which the tale of another death row inmate convicted under questionable circumstances, Charles Dean Hood, was told in his own words.
But this month’s story may be the best of all. In “ The Exonerated”, Mike profiles the 37 Texans who’ve been sprung from various forms of incarceration—having spent a total of 525 years in prison—as a result of DNA testing. In September 2007, Mike wrote about Dallas County district attorney Craig Watkins (“ Craig’s List”), whose short tenure in office had been defined by his eagerness to reopen cases in which the evidence had cast doubt on the outcome and the accused had steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. Inspired by Watkins—and by a stream of news stories announcing exoneree after exoneree—Mike decided early this year to tackle the full measure of the topic. He tracked down and interviewed as many of the 37 as he could find, and our