Steve’s guest, Dick Lehr is a professor of journalism at Boston University’s College of Communication and former reporter at the Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in investigative reporting. Lehr was co-author of the New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal and its sequel, Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss. Black Mass was made into a film starring Johnny Depp.
In conversation with Steve, Lehr discusses his latest book, Trell, a page-turning novel that was inspired by the true story of a young man’s false imprisonment for murder, his daughter’s quest to prove her father’s innocence, and the lawyer and reporter who fought to free him.
Trell is based on the story of a drive-by, gang-related shooting death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore in 1988, and the daughter of the wrongly accused convicted man who persuaded a reporter and a lawyer to help her prove her father’s innocence.
In Dick’s words, Trell is a novel largely aimed at young adults. The protagonist, Trell Taylor, is a 14-year-old girl from the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston, who has grown up with her father, Romero Taylor, in prison for a murder that occurred when she was a newborn baby girl. She marked her time by going to the prison to visit her father and always asking him, “Daddy, when are you coming home?”
The main action in the novel happens when Trell is 14-years-old and all legal appeals have been exhausted. Her father’s lawyer throws up her arms and says the only recourse she can think of is to find a reporter willing to poke around and maybe uncover some new evidence.
Trell is determined to help her father get home and so picks out the best reporter at The Boston Globe, Clemens Bittner, and convinces him to look into her father’s case in spite of his initial resistance. Over the course of the main action in the plot, the two of them work the streets of Boston gathering evidence to show that her father was wrongfully convicted of murder.
Fact Versus Fiction
Steve asks Dick to break down the difference between the novel, Trell, and the true story on which it is based. Dick Lehr says one of his last stories for The Globe was on an investigation into a wrongful conviction case involving a man who in prison for a murder he did not commit. When the man was first arrested in the late 1980s, he had a newborn baby girl, and the case made headlines in Boston at the time. Dick used that backdrop as a scaffolding, a framework, on which to develop his novel, Trell, which is largely fictionalized but inspired by that last case that he had worked on as a reporter at The Boston Globe.
The Economics Of Crime And Punishment
Having set the stage, Steve pivots the conversation towards the theme of his show and asks Dick about the economics of the case and how much poverty was a factor in the real-life wrongful conviction on which his novel is based. He asks to what degree economics factor in preventing poor families from getting fair trials.
Dick answers that economics was a major factor because the convicted man and his family were struggling financially and lacked the resources to hire a high-powered law firm to defend him. He reflects that the economics angle in his novel, specifically with Romero Taylor being unable to afford a private lawyer and instead being assigned a public defender who was drunk most of the time, profoundly impacted the outcome of his case. Dick Lehr says Trell attempts to capture the systemic inequalities and economics that often come into play in the court system.
Trell’s Character Buildup In The Novel
Fast forward to when Trell is working on the case. Again, she still can’t afford a big-time lawyer and so hires one fresh out of law school who, fortunately, turns out to be quite a bulldog. In addition, Trell is determined to better herself and break out of the Boston school system and her own cycle of poverty and despair. She is characterized as a long-distance runner, giving her the traits she needs to run the “marathon” of proving her father’s innocence.
Secondary Story Line: Trell’s Own Socio-Economic Challenges
Dick Lehr also speaks about the secondary storyline in the novel which deals with Trell’s own socio-economic challenges. Although she manages to gain admittance to an exclusive private school outside of Boston on her own merits, she quickly begins to feel like a fish out of water. Trell’s classmates have wealthy parents who graduated from Ivy League colleges, live in mansions, and have chauffeur-driven cars.
Dick speaks of Trell’s angst over not fitting in. At one point, she contemplates leaving the private school altogether, until an understanding and compassionate English teacher changes her mind. Additionally, Clemens Bittner (the reporter in the novel) tells Trell that he too went to a private school but was thrown out, and so develops a bond with her. Steve notes how, in real life too, a few people who care can truly make a difference in a young person’s life.
Steve steers the conversation to fake news—which Steve recently did a commentary on—and wants Dick’s thoughts on the quality of journalism today. How do we protect ourselves as lay readers and how do we tell the difference between the real and fake news? Dick says as readers consume information, they need to develop what he calls “journalism muscle,” which is being skeptical, testing information, and not believing everything they see or hear, but developing strategies to verify information. He loops it back to how Trell and her quest to uncover the truth. By targeting younger readers, he hopes they will learn to be more skeptical and understand how good investigative journalism is vital for our democracy.
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Steve Pomeranz: Dick Lehr is a professor of journalism at Boston University as well as a reporter at The Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in investigative reporting. He was a long-time member of the newspaper’s investigative reporting unit, the Spotlight Team, which was highlighted in the movie Black Mass about the Boston crime boss, Whitey Bulger, and was made into a film starring Johnny Depp. Today, we’re going to talk about his novel, Trell, based on the story of a drive-by, gang-related shooting death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore in 1988 and the daughter of the wrongly accused convicted man who persuaded a reporter and a lawyer to help her prove her father’s innocence. Dick Lehr, welcome to the show.
Dick Lehr: Good to be with you, Steve.
Steve Pomeranz: Give us a brief synopsis of the story. Let’s take it from there.
Dick Lehr: Sure. Well, this is a novel largely aimed at young adults. The protagonist, the main character, is a 14-year-old girl from the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston who’s grown up with her daddy in prison for a murder that occurred when she was a newborn baby girl. She’s marked time by going to the prison, visiting her dad, and always asking, “Daddy, when you coming home?”
Well, the main action of the novel is she’s 14 now and all the legal appeals have been exhausted that they’ve worked with her lawyer. The lawyer’s thrown up her arms and hands and said, “All I can think is if we can get a journalist, a reporter to poke around into here, maybe uncover some new evidence. That’s all I can think of.”
Trell, this young girl who’s really determined to help her dad get home, figures out who the best reporter at The Boston Globe is. She overcomes his initial resistance, “I’m not interested in this,” and whatnot, and they partner up. Over the course of the main action of the plot, the two of them are a team, an investigative team, so to speak. They work the streets of Boston trying to develop the evidence to show that her father was wrongfully convicted in a murder.
Steve Pomeranz: This is a novel and based on a true story, so break down the difference between the two here.
Dick Lehr: Yeah. Well, I call it my scaffolding. Years ago, one of my last stories I did for The Globe was to investigate a wrongful conviction case involving a man who was in prison for a murder obviously he didn’t commit, as a result of the investigation.). When he was first arrested in the late ’80s, he had a newborn baby girl. It was a notorious case in Boston at the time. I used that as scaffolding, as infrastructure to take off and to develop the story around this girl, Trell, who’s a young teenager. It’s largely fictionalized, but it’s inspired by this true case that I had worked on when I was a reporter at The Boston Globe.
Steve Pomeranz: Now, when you were writing that story when you were at The Boston Globe, the family was poor, urban, couldn’t afford a high-priced lawyer.
Dick Lehr: Yep.
Steve Pomeranz: This is a show about money. This is a show about economics. To what degree did the economic system prevent these families from getting fair trials?
Dick Lehr: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things about this, to me, it’s a realistic novel, drama, reality-based kind of thing. One of the things between the lines is that you do have this family that’s struggling in the city. They don’t have the resources to hire a high-powered, high-priced, fancy law firm to defend—his name is Romero Taylor—when he’s first arrested and picked up off the streets. When he’s convicted originally in the backstory of the novel, his lawyer was a drunk. He was just a public defender who was useless to him.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Dick Lehr: It kind of captures the systemic inequalities and the economics that can come into play in the court system. Fast forward to when Trell is working on the case. Again, they still can’t hire a big-time lawyer, but they do have a lawyer, someone fresh out of law school who’s a bulldog. They got lucky that way. It was her first appellate case and whatnot. She’s doing her best, but she’s a rookie.
Steve Pomeranz: Now, in this book, the protagonist, Trell, is determined to better herself and to break out of the Boston school system and the…I guess…the cycle of poverty and despair. How do you characterize that?
Dick Lehr: Yeah. That’s part of developing her traits, and she’s also a long-distance runner. I mean, all these things are the theme of a marathon. Trying to prove her father’s innocence is a marathon, you know, investigative journalism, and also in that she’s determined to do better and to get ahead. Well, on her own, she got herself into an exclusive private school outside of Boston. Her family’s really proud of her that she showed that kind of gumption and initiative.
Again, one of the secondary storylines is that her first year there, she hated it. She was the proverbial fish out of water. She didn’t know what to say to people. Classmates are talking about their parents going to Yale and Harvard, and she’d turn around and go the other way because if someone asked her, her dad’s in prison, in Walpole, a maximum security prison.
Steve Pomeranz: Right.
Dick Lehr: She’s really struggling with that kind of economic disparity. Then, even the token progressive liberalism of some of the teachers who are making assumptions about … She’s late to school. They’re assuming that there’s all these wild parties going on at her home, so it shows someone struggling with those kinds of disparities and whatnot.
Steve Pomeranz: She’s mingling with people who live in mansions and have drivers-
Dick Lehr: Chauffeur-driven cars.
Steve Pomeranz: … Chauffeur-driven cars, and there’s no doubt that she must have felt totally not accepted or worthy in that situation. I mean, what would keep a person like that focused on the long term, especially at that age?
Dick Lehr: Well, and that’s one of her main decisions while she’s working with the reporter that summer on her dad’s case is she doesn’t want to go back. She’s got to make up her mind whether to go back because she did feel so defeated by it, but there was one lifeline. There was in the English class, an English teacher who started to get through to her with some poetry and whatnot, so there is a little ray of hope there.
That’s one of the decisions that’s pending and she’s struggling with in whether or not to go back. The reporter, the relationship that she develops with this older reporter from The Boston Globe, his experience. I mean, he went to private schooling in his backstory, and he got thrown out, so he starts to … They talk a little bit about that and how it can be a good thing. You can make it work for you. Those are the kinds of dialogues they have.
Steve Pomeranz: It’s interesting how one person or one or two people in a young person’s life can really make all the difference.
Dick Lehr: Oh, yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I’ve had similar experience myself on that. You worked with the Spotlight Team, which, as I mentioned-
Dick Lehr: I did.
Steve Pomeranz: … In the intro was characterized or highlighted in that film starring Johnny Depp about Whitey Bulger. What was it like to work there?
Dick Lehr: Oh, I mean, it was something I always aspired to. I grew up in Connecticut, and The Globe was my dream place to work as a journalist. At Hartford Courant, I had gotten into investigative reporting, so the Spotlight Team was where the action is. It’s a real luxury and a public service to be part of a unit that doesn’t have a daily deadline.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah.
Dick Lehr: The mission is to go deep and go wide, and let’s uncover, develop things that our readership, our audience ought to know about in terms of perhaps corruption or a systemic failure. It’s a longstanding institution at The Globe, and despite the struggles of newspapers everywhere, The Globe has kept its commitment to the Spotlight Team.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, we’re going through a period of time in our own history where the quality of news is questioned. We’ve heard this term fake news all the time.
Dick Lehr: Yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: Actually, I’m going to be doing a commentary on fake economic news, how to tell the difference between the two. What are your thoughts these days about the quality of journalism, and how do we protect ourselves as lay readers? How do we know the difference?
Dick Lehr: Well, I mean, the quality is all over the map. I think the key is … I teach journalism now at BU, and I think it’s almost like everyone has to develop in some ways their own journalism muscle in order to approach everything that’s coming at us. As we consume information, some of it accurate, a lot of it not, that we be skeptical and be trained as journalists are trained to test information and not believe everything we see or hear but develop the strategies, to go sideways, and to verify. It may sound exciting, and it may feed into something I want to believe, but hold on. There’s just too much chaos out there.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, I know how to go to the gym and develop a muscle. I know how to do that, but I don’t know how to develop a journalism muscle.
Dick Lehr: Yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah. I mean, I can see if you’re in the business, you can double-check and check and all that. Anything come to mind as some quick clues as to what you can do?
Dick Lehr: I know that there are engineers trying to develop apps that would help consumers.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah.
Dick Lehr: Some people have talked to me about that. I certainly have read about educators trying to find ways to embed early on in elementary, in the middle school years, into the curriculum this ability to test and the skepticism. I mean, I think that’s all good. It’s not going to happen overnight. I think we’ve missed a lot of folks, but I think there’s some hope there. To loop it back to Trell for a second, I mean, one of the things I think that makes it timely, too, is that Trell teams up with a journalist. This whole investigation and everything that they do to try to prove her father’s innocence is about journalism. One of my big messages or takeaways, hopefully, for younger audience, is the role of journalism, is the power of journalism in our world, in our democracy. That’s something that’s near and dear to my heart, so that’s a big part of Trell.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, definitely don’t want to take that for granted. Unfortunately, Dick, we are out of time. To hear this interview again, or to listen to the full show, or to get a summary of the vital lessons learned here today, go to stevepomeranz.com. While you’re there, sign up for our weekly update, and we’ll send you important lessons from the show straight to your inbox on a weekly basis, telling you what’s going on, what we’ve talked about, and it’s something that I think you’ll benefit from. Dick Lehr, thank you very much for joining us. It was a great help.
Dick Lehr: You’re welcome, Steve. Good to talk to you.