By Ben Tobin, The Courier Journal
The Courier Journal has been awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its unrelenting coverage of more than 600 pardons and commutations that former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin issued during his final weeks in office.
The Pulitzer Prize committee awarded The Courier Journal staff first place “for its rapid coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons by Kentucky’s governor, showing how the process was marked by opacity, racial disparities and violations of legal norms.”
“This is an incredible honor rooted to three journalistic pillars: Get the story right, get it first and leave no stone unturned in reporting and telling it,” Courier Journal Editor Richard Green said Monday. “There’s never been an editor more proud of his entire staff than I am this afternoon.”
The Courier beat out finalists The Los Angeles Times for its coverage of a “devastating California boat fire that killed 34 people” and The Washington Post for its reporting of “back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that contextualized these events for a national audience.”
This is The Courier Journal’s 11th Pulitzer Prize and its first since 2005.
Defeated for reelection by Attorney General Andy Beshear in last November’s general election, Bevin engaged in a flurry of 11th-hour pardons and commutations for convicted felons, several of whom he said suffered miscarriages of justice.
The Courier Journal’s reporting on Bevin’s acts of clemency ignited an immediate firestorm among victims’ families, law enforcement and lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who called the pardons “completely inappropriate.”
The Courier Journal found that the family of Patrick Brian Baker, whom Bevin pardoned for homicide and other crimes in a fatal 2014 Knox County home invasion, raised $21,500 at a 2018 political fundraiser to retire debt from Bevin’s 2015 gubernatorial campaign.
The next day, Melinda Mills, the sister of Donald Mills, who was gunned down in the home invasion, told The Courier Journal that “Matt Bevin can rot in hell.”
Bevin issued pardons to other people convicted of brutal crimes, such as Micah Schoettle, who was found guilty of raping a 9-year-old child in Kenton County and sentenced last year to 23 years in prison.
He also pardoned Dayton Jones, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to using a sex toy to sodomize an incapacitated 15-year-old boy in Hopkinsville so violently that the victim’s bowel was perforated.
Jones was sentenced to 15 years in prison before Bevin issued his release. Last month, he was federally charged with producing child pornography for that same incident.
‘Matt Bevin can rot in hell’: Family of murder victim reacts to pardon of donor’s relative
The actions also prompted current Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron to ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the decisions. In late December 2019, The Courier Journal reported that the FBI was conducting inquiries about the pardons.
More than a dozen Courier Journal staffers were involved in the coverage, which included an ambitious digital presentation of Bevin’s actions and his explanations and a racial breakdown of those whose sentences he commuted. Two days before Christmas Eve, the newsroom also produced an eight-page special section.
The coverage was exhaustive, comprehensive and revelatory, Green said.
“As details started to erupt from Frankfort about Matt Bevin’s commutations and we were digging into them, the former governor called our reporter, Joe Sonka, and challenged him,” Green said.
“‘If you truly care about the truth of that story … stay with it, stay on it, ask a lot of questions,’ Bevin said. ‘You’ll find a lot of people both inside and outside of Kentucky are very aware of that case.’
“And he added: ‘If it’s done, right, I’m telling you, you could win a Pulitzer Prize. … I don’t know if you write well enough or do research well enough to do it, but if somebody had that ability …’
“So we did, and today, we won a Pulitzer Prize.”
Green added: “I have to presume that anytime a newsroom wins a Pulitzer, it’s an amazing feeling.
“But to hear the news today — with my staff working remotely and all of us exhausted from covering the coronavirus pandemic, which is the biggest story of our generation — it means more than words can express,” Green said.
“This is for the taxpayers of Kentucky who demand accountability and public trust from their elected officials.”
The Courier Journal’s Pulitzer Prizes
- 1918 for editorial writing for two editorials written by Henry Watterson, former editor of The Courier Journal.
- 1926 for reporting on the famed case of southern Kentucky spelunker Floyd Collins.
- 1956 for editorial cartooning for a piece titled “Achilles.”
- 1967 for public service for its coverage of strip mining in Kentucky that eventually led to the commonwealth passing some of the toughest laws on the matter in the nation.
- 1969 for local general or spot news reporting on a Knott County private’s remains being returned home after he was hit by mortar fragments near Saigon.
- 1976 for feature photography of forced busing to integrate Jefferson County’s purposely segregated system of public schools
- 1978 for local general or spot news reporting on the fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, which killed 162 people.
- 1980 for international reporting on refugee camps along the Cambodia-Thailand border.
- 1989 for general reporting on the fiery Carroll County bus crash that killed 24 children and three of their chaperones.
- 2005 for editorial cartooning for a portfolio of cartoons on national and international issues, including the war in Iraq and the 2004 presidential election.
- 2020 for breaking news reporting on former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s controversial pardons during his last weeks in office.
Contact Ben Tobin at firstname.lastname@example.org