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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.