November 1, 2009

Peter Shellem, Investigative Reporter Who Wrote About Wrongful Convictions, Dies at 49

Peter Shellem, whose relentless digging into dusty court records, erroneous crime-lab reports and coerced confessions during his 23 years as a reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., led to the release of five wrongly convicted prisoners, died Oct. 24 at his home in Gardners, Pa. He was 49.

In one case, a man who was a teenager when he was convicted of killing a neighbor was released after 28 years in prison. In another, DNA evidence that Mr. Shellem recovered from a professor’s refrigerator in Leipzig, Germany, exonerated a retarded man of rape and murder.

Mr. Shellem committed suicide, his son Philip said, but the Cumberland County coroner, Michael Norris, would not confirm the cause of death.

Although Mr. Shellem’s investigative work was not widely known outside of central Pennsylvania, Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law atYeshiva University in New York, called him “a rare, one-man journalism innocence project.”

“He got into the nitty-gritty details of cases, and when he began to believe that somebody was wrongfully convicted he wouldn’t stop until he got justice,” Mr. Scheck said Monday. “Justice from the Fourth Estate has always been a great safety valve of our legal system, and Pete Shellem was that safety valve in Pennsylvania.”

In a profile in 2007, American Journalism Review wrote of Mr. Shellem, “No one keeps records on such things, but experts on journalism and the wrongly convicted cannot think of a present-day reporter who by himself has compiled a résumé of freed prisoners as thick as Shellem’s.”

Among them is Steven Crawford, who was arrested in 1970, when he was 14, after a friend was bludgeoned to death with a hammer. In 2001, Mr. Shellem learned that an old briefcase had been found in the attic of a deceased detective who had worked on the case. Notes in the briefcase suggested that a state police chemist had altered laboratory results to help convict Mr. Crawford. The Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office supported Mr. Crawford’s release after 28 years in prison.

In 1988, Barry Laughman, a man with an IQ of about 70, was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a distant relative, Edna Laughman. Fifteen years later, Mr. Shellem’s series in The Patriot-News pointed to flaws in the case, including a confession that appeared to have been coerced. He also tracked down microscope slides of semen recovered from the victim’s body that had been taken to Germany by a professor who had tried, but failed, to identify the DNA. DNA techniques that had improved since the trial showed that Mr. Laughman was not the killer. He was freed in 2003.

“In the Laughman case, Pete was beating his head against the wall for years and no one would listen to him,” Bill Moushey, director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, said Monday. “Some law enforcement people brought personal attacks against him, trying to debunk his work, but he stood strong and eventually that retarded kid walked out of prison.”

Among the other prisoners freed by Mr. Shellem’s investigations is David Gladden, who was convicted in 1995 of killing a 67-year-old woman, Geneva Long, and burning the body. Ten years later, Mr. Shellem discovered that a convicted serial killer had lived next door to Ms. Long; he had killed his known victims in the same way.

Mr. Shellem interviewed a witness who had testified that he was with Mr. Gladden at the time of the crime. The witness recanted, saying he had been coerced into confessing a role in the crime. Mr. Gladden walked out of prison on Feb. 16, 2007.

“I don’t start writing until I’m sure I’m right,” Mr. Shellem told The American Journalism Review, “and if people need to be embarrassed into doing the right thing, I’m happy to oblige them.”

Peter Joseph Shellem was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 6, 1960, one of five children of Harry and Josephine Shellem. Besides his son Philip, he is survived by his wife of 24 years, the former Joyce Elser; another son, Alek; a brother, Paul; and a sister, Karen Cain.

Mr. Shellem graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism in 1983. While in college, he worked at The Delaware County Times. He was a reporter for The Mercury, in Pottstown, Pa., before being hired by The Patriot-News in 1986.

A bearded, barrel-chested man, Mr. Shellem could have been cast as a B-movie reporter. He knew the first names of many bartenders in Harrisburg. He would sit in a bar poring over court transcripts and interviewing sources.

“I don’t want to lead anyone to believe I go to bars only to get stories,” he once said, “although it would be nice if my editors did.”