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Biking While Black

April 27, 2015

(Byline with Kameel Stanley): If the tickets are any indication, Tampa residents must be the lousiest bicyclists in Florida.

They don’t use lights at night. Don’t ride close enough to the curb. Can’t manage to keep their hands on the handlebars.

In the past three years, Tampa police have written 2,504 bike tickets — more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined.

Police say they are gung ho about bike safety and focused on stopping a plague of bike thefts.

But here’s something they don’t mention about the people they ticket:

Eight out of 10 are black.

Tampa Bay Times investigation has found that Tampa police are targeting poor, black neighborhoods with obscure subsections of a Florida statute that outlaws things most people have tried on a bike, like riding with no light or carrying a friend on the handlebars.

Officers use these minor violations as an excuse to stop, question and search almost anyone on wheels. The department doesn’t just condone these stops, it encourages them, pushing officers who patrol high-crime neighborhoods to do as many as possible

Honors for “Insult to Injury”

April 27, 2015

Our Tampa Bay Times trauma investigation was awarded second place in the National Headliner Awards. We also won a regional Emmy Award.

Insult to Injury

March 12, 2014

Here’s what I’ve been working on since I joined the Times investigations team in May 2013:

More awards. New assignment.

August 3, 2013

This year has been surreal. I won the Casey Medal. I won the James Batten Award for Public Service. I won the Livingston Award; my entire career, I’d aspired just to make the list of finalists. I’ve spent all year thanking my editor and photojournalist story partner on “In God’s Name.” At the Livingston, which honors journalists under age 35, I made a point to give mention to a few young people myself. I interviewed about five dozen of them last year, in varying degrees of intimacy. Some risked a lot to talk to me. Gay kids opened up about being sent away by their families. Those who said they were raped gave permission to use their names, feeling it would lend more credibility to their stories. A college student reopened old wounds and recounted in painstaking detail the worst days of his life, even giving me permission to reach out to his mother, because he knew good reporting meant I had to hear her reasons for sending an honor student to an unlicensed home where he almost died. They didn’t do it so I could win awards. They did it so that other kids could be spared. I keep getting phone calls and e-mails from parents, thanking me for helping them make better decisions. I couldn’t have done it without these kids.

Another exciting development: I’m now an official member of the Tampa Bay Times investigations team, whose notable recent work includes this project on America’s Worst Charities and this analysis of Stand Your Ground that continues to be cited by national news outlets as an authority on Florida’s controversial law.

I’m working on something good with a very smart reporter. Stay tuned.


April 20, 2013

I was honored to be in the Tampa Bay Times newsroom this week during the announcement that my newspaper won its ninth Pulitzer Prize, given to editor of editorials Tim Nickens and columnist Dan Ruth for their push to convince Pinellas County to resume adding fluoride to the drinking water. I was proud to stand with one of my journalism idols Kelley Benham, who was named a finalist in the features category for her brave, intimate series “Never Let Go,” a thoroughly-reported first-person narrative about giving birth to an extremely premature baby. It’s one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. I was humbled to be in such company when I was named a Pulitzer finalist for “In God’s Name.” Here is a video interview the Poynter Institute did with me after the announcement.

Dissecting juror deliberations under Florida’s death penalty law

March 17, 2013

The jurors had started to talk it out.

Some thought Patrick Evans should die for what he did to his estranged wife and the man he found in her bedroom — shot him in the neck, then, as she cried for help, pulled the trigger again.

But in a Pinellas County jury room on Nov. 10, 2011, some could not agree that the murders deserved the death penalty. One woman cried, remembers juror Quentin Davis. He asked the rest to find out why, and remembers one man saying he didn’t care, that it wouldn’t change his mind.

Some didn’t want to share their thoughts, says juror Phyllis McMahon. “They either weren’t talking about it, or would hint maybe life in prison was okay, or they weren’t saying at all. You could tell by body language, by silence, by facial expression.”

So the jurors came up with a solution:

They would put their written votes in a cup.

Out they came: 9-3 for death in the wife’s murder, 8-4 for the same in the death of the man.

There was no need for further debate.

They had what they needed.

In Florida, defendants must be found guilty by a unanimous vote, whether they steal a car or kill. But when it comes to recommending the ultimate punishment, a simple majority, 7-5, suffices.

This is the only state in America that allows such split juries to recommend death. And it matters. In 2012, almost two-thirds of the defendants sent to Florida’s death row were ushered there even after some of the jurors believed they should be spared…

Determining whether someone should be put to death is the most profound choice an ordinary citizen could be asked to make.

Yet out of 13 states, Florida had the highest percentage of recommendations reached in less than an hour and the lowest percentage of recommendations reached in more than three hours. It had the lowest percentage of deliberations in which jurors asked to review testimony or transcripts, and the highest percentage of jurors who said their sentence was decided in one vote.

Yet majority is still the law in Florida.

It preceded the sentences of 11 out of 18 Florida defendants sent to death row in 2012.

Forty-two jurors of 132 — almost a third — voted to spare the lives of those defendants. The Tampa Bay Times sought to speak with them, and every other juror who contributed to a majority vote that led to the death penalty in 2012.

Twelve jurors responded from five Florida counties. This jury of jurors allowed the Times to dissect their deliberations, both the unanimous guilt verdict and the majority death recommendation, and gave their opinions on the law.

Some believe a simple majority vote is fine for the penalty. Some think it should change. Some feel that if unanimity had been required when they deliberated, it could have meant the difference between life and death.

Many agree that a unanimous requirement, at least, would have kept them talking.

Selden Ring Award

March 8, 2013

I am thrilled and humbled to win the 2013 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, and will spend the rest of my career trying to live up to the ideals it embodies. Here is what the judging panel, chaired by the Sacramento Bee managing editor Tom Negrete, said in a statement:

“‘In God’s Name’ is a remarkable mix of live interviews and reporting from public records that exposed a serious lack of oversight and regulation together with shocking cases of abuse at religious children’s homes in Florida. The judges were impressed by the doggedness of a single reporter, Alexandra Zayas, in the face of countless obstacles — including the challenge of earning the trust of dozens of sensitive sources. The series documents Florida’s utter abdication of regulation of these homes, and shows how families were misled in entrusting their sons and daughters to religious-based camps with no accountability to anyone. The story was well-organized and its multimedia presentation compelling and powerful.”

My biggest thanks goes out to investigative editor Chris Davis, who helped shape my story to not only tell what had happened to these young people, but why it happened. He taught me to be more systematic, report like a scientist in a lab and look at the big picture.

In other news…

November 6, 2012

So, this year has been dedicated to the biggest project I have ever done, under the close guidance of investigative guru Chris Davis. But I’ve gotten to work on some other pretty neat odds and ends, including some Republican National Convention coverage here in Tampa.

Freedom, freedom, freedom. After tea partiers packed an east Hillsborough megachurch to standing-room-only Sunday night, after they were told jeering, heckling and animal noises were encouraged, after they heard an emcee call Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a WINO — “wife in name only” — they heard from the people they were there to see: Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain…

The empty jail. To prepare for an expected 1,000 protester arrests during the Republican National Convention, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office paid $140,349 for software that would alert deputies if an inmate had been sitting in one place for too long. To treat the injured, they paid $240,000 for medical staff. They bought a new fence, food and electrical updates, and got a green light to spend $1.5 million in overtime pay. Then this week, on a dry-erase board in their flat-screen-filled command center, they began to tally the arrests. The grand total, by midday Thursday: Two.

Command Central. There are a handful of protester hubs scattered along the gritty fringes of downtown this week during the Republican National Convention. Only one sells quiche.

Who authorized this?! … But on any weeknight, what is the baseline of nightlife in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg? The Times dispatched a team Wednesday to investigate… Before the night is over, the dancing woman will approach the Times reporter, grab his nipple, and squeeze.

Daily deadline profile. … In an age of bump-and-grind, Barsukov is a stand-in Prince Charming. He is handsome, not hot. He smells sweet and sweats with grace. And when it was time to take his first partner to the dance floor on Saturday, he led her by the hand.

Judicial drama exclusive. A Hillsborough judge said Thursday she will not hear any cases involving an assistant public defender she called “incompetent and untrustworthy” and accused of “sitting on her butt.”

Tinderbox  … So into this metal box they cram, the prosecution and the defense, the judges and the accused, bow-tied and seersuckered, neck-tattooed and ankle-monitored — up to a dozen at a time — sharing a rough 6 feet by 5 feet and oxygen, and the experience of momentary captivity.

Selling a crime scene. Tampa Palms Beauty! the ad said. Move-in ready. NOT a short-sale. Can close quickly. But the house at 16305 Royal Park Court, behind the gates of Ashington Reserve, had a sad history told only in crime stories: A year ago this month, two children died there. Police charged their mother, Julie Schenecker, with murder.

In God’s Name

November 6, 2012

They shaved him bald that first morning in 2008, put him in an orange jumpsuit and made him exercise past dark. •Through the night, as he slept on the floor, they forced him awake for more. • The sun had not yet risen over the Christian military home when Samson Lehman collapsed for the sixth time. Still, he said, they made him run. • The screaming, the endless exercise, it was all in the name of God, a necessary step at the Gateway Christian Military Academy on the path to righteousness. • So when Samson vomited, they threw him a rag. When his urine turned red, they said that was normal. • By Day 3, the 15-year-old was on the verge of death, his dehydrated organs shutting down. • Slumped against a wall, cold and immobile, Lehman recalls men who recited Scripture calling him a wimp. And he thought: Maybe, if I die here, someone will shut this place down. • Not in Florida.

Entire yearlong investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes. 

Project impact

Death penalty trial

November 5, 2011

Day one: 

Cindy Roberts closed her eyes, breathed, chewed her gum with intent. In a Hillsborough courtroom, on the opening day of the trial she has awaited for more than two years, she was about to hear the last recorded words of her husband, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts.

The sentence:

Humberto Delgado never asked for mercy, and he didn’t get it Friday.

His victim’s widow called him a cop killer and told him to choke on his own blood.

There was no prelude from the judge, except just six words:

“All of this on your hands.”

Delgado, 36, said nothing when he was condemned to death…