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Can a former inmate write about victims' issues?

Several weeks ago, Justice For All leader Dianne Clements and Andy Kahan, the City of Houston's victims' advocate, telephoned the Houston Press, incredulous that an ex-con had been assigned a freelance article on the victims' rights movement.

How could the Press possibly put "a violent convicted felon" on a story about crime victims, they demanded to know.

Actually, the Press had already published one feature by writer Scott Nowell about crime victims. He covered the story of the rape and murder of a woman, and how her mother and daughter eventually confronted one of her killers (see "Face to Face," September 27, 2001).

Clements was angry that Nowell had wanted to interview her for a story, and that she had initially agreed until learning of his past. She and Kahan apparently assumed that his record had been kept secret from the Press -- but it had formed one of the more unique job applications when it arrived last year.

Nowell's résumé listed his journalism background -- he is a parolee who was a reporter and staff writer for The ECHO, the inmate-produced newspaper for the Texas prison system. The applicant didn't hide his troubled background.

In 1990, Nowell was a Texas A&M economics major with two earlier misdemeanor convictions. He got drunk and was arrested and convicted for DWI and aggravated assault on a police officer. He received ten years' probation, but problems returned in 1994, when his former girlfriend jumped from his moving vehicle after he refused her requests to be let out.

Nowell pleaded guilty to false imprisonment in exchange for an eight-year term on the 1990 assault. He went to prison in 1996 and was paroled last year.

With that kind of past, why assign anything to him? Nowell's résumé had some positive aspects: He was a paralegal and tutor for other prisoners in GED and computer courses. But most notable were his articles from the prison newspaper -- they reflected skills in both research and writing.

His talent and objective approach showed themselves in the first feature. The Press realizes there are legitimate concerns about potential biases -- Nowell got the second feature assignment because he has solid contacts within the victims' movement and a good knowledge of the subject, and his skills were apparent in the work on the initial assignment.

While victims' groups have obviously had a strong impact on the justice system generally, none of them had been involved in his own cases. He was told to pursue the article -- that he didn't need to explain his background, but he wasn't to conceal it if the issue came up.

Kahan argues that a past criminal record kills the writer's credibility in covering an issue such as victims' rights. Kahan's own credibility came into question when he began detailing Nowell's situation. He said he had Nowell's parole papers in hand and they showed the writer was "under the highest level of supervision…intensive supervision" -- that was untrue. Kahan said Nowell needed special permission to travel outside the county -- again, untrue. And he said that trial was pending on a DWI charge and so was the revocation of his parole -- another misstatement.

A part of Kahan's city job responsibilities is to gather accurate parole information.

Kahan also apparently decided to cancel the planned interview before he was aware of Nowell's past. He asked about the nature of the questions -- they were the same that any Press writer would have posed -- and said he didn't want to dwell on "negativity." In a later conversation with a Press editor, Kahan hinted that he might reconsider if the Pressstopped pursuing "old news": the allegation from a crime victim that Kahan had taken advantage of her sexually.

Kahan, mayoral press secretary Jim Young and Clements all subsequently voiced complaints about Nowell's doing a story on victims, saying it constituted a conflict and would be obviously biased. The gadfly Web site HOUSNITCH also received anonymous material on his background -- sent from a City Hall fax machine. And Kahan reminded the Pressthat he's a columnist and contributor to victims' group publications and would be writing about the situation.

Clements told the newspaper she feared for her safety and wanted an official statement from the Press assuming liability if she was harmed by the writer (the proposed interview was to be by telephone). The Press doesn't do that for other interviews, and it wasn't going to in this case, either.

Nowell was informed by his parole officer last Friday that Clements alleged to parole officials that she had felt threatened by him, so a new parole condition forbids him to contact her.

Neither Clements nor Kahan had complaints to the Press about Nowell's conduct in talking to them about setting up interviews. As for Nowell, he says he just wants to be judged by his work.

His first feature on victims, incidentally, earned Nowell honors as one of three national finalists in the prestigious Eugene Pulliam Award for writing excellence.

The Pulliam judges probably didn't know about his background -- or maybe they just evaluated the article on its merits.

 
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