The Good Seed

Michael Hall

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 brilliant photographer Randal Ford captured as many as he could on film, including 22 at one time for the opening photo. The result is a classic cautionary tale with truly heartbreaking consequences.

For personal reasons, it elates me to see Mike turn out to be such a fine journalist. When I first encountered him 21 years ago, I had no idea that his life’s path would lead him here. I was a senior in college in a snowy town in upstate New York, and Mike was the lead singer in an Austin rock band, Wild Seeds, on what seemed like an endless tour of small campuses and clubs around the country. I had played the band’s record for months on the college radio station, so I was excited to meet Mike, and I did—at two in the morning, following his show at the campus pub, while I was hitchhiking back to my dorm after spending a few hours at a bar downtown. I had not been, you might say, on my best behavior, and I was facing the prospect of walking home, a mile or more, in subfreezing temperatures until the band’s rickety van tottered around a corner and threw open its doors.

It seemed like a random act of kindness at the time, but knowing my great pal Mike as I do now, maybe it wasn’t random after all. Time and again, in keeping with his pay-it-forward outlook on the world and his status as our in-house patron saint of lost causes, he stops to help the needy and the forgotten. And we are all better for his example.

Next month

Our favorite small-town cafes, the anatomy of an immigration raid, the inside story of the 2000 Florida recount, a fugitive speaks, and Pamela Colloff explains the fire at the Governor’s Mansion.

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