This photo accompanied our special report on sentencing. Joe Old is on the right.
Thirty years ago, when I was starting out as a reporter at the afternoon paper in El Paso, the Herald-Post, I got an assignment that sounded ominously like a term paper. The job was to analyze the sentencing patterns of the district judges in El Paso, and see if any of them gave tougher sentences for certain crimes, or were less than even-handed. My partner for this job was a reporter named Joe Old.
I barely knew Joe at that point. But I could see he was different. Most of the other reporters had a touch of cynicism, which serves as an insurance policy against looking dumb. Joe was older than us, and didn’t have time for such silliness. And while most of us were focused on getting good clips, so that we could climb the ladder, to jobs in Dallas, LA, or in my case, Mexico, Joe’s ambition was simply to do great work in El Paso. He believed in the promise of journalism, and in himself. He was shameless in his idealism, which is rare in a newsroom.
We were both single and footloose that year. We had plenty of time, both to work on our project and to laze around talking about books and history, to drink beer and eat Mexican food on one side of the border or the other. Within a year, I got a job at BusinessWeek and moved to Mexico and got married. Joe remarried the same month. Our lives moved apart
All these years later, I’m so sad to see on Facebook that Joe died last week. Last time I saw him was in 2008.
Joe found life endlessly interesting, and took the bumps with good humor. He already had three ex-wives when I met him, and he was great friends with all of them (though, in the spirit of journalistic rigor, I should note that I have only Joe’s word on that). He had served in the Air Force as a helicopter mechanic in Taiwan and returned with a passion for China. He was well into a PhD program in Chinese history at the University of Illinois when he decided to make a switch, and to write history while it was happening. So he plunged into journalism. First he covered crime at the City News Service in Chicago. Then he went down to El Paso, arriving about a year before I did.
As we started the criminal justice project, Joe hoisted a few huge boxes onto his desk. This was a goldmine, he said. In the boxes were thousands of papers, each one the disposition of a criminal trial in the El Paso courts. It had the name of the defendant, the charge against him or her, the attorney, the judge, and the sentence. What we had to do, he explained, was code these papers for those various data points, and then enter them into the brand new tool we had, the newsroom’s first IBM personal computer.
I didn’t know what to call it then, but Joe and I were launched into data journalism. We spent long evenings punching the numbers and letters into the computer, and then backing them all up onto floppy disks. As we went along, Joe, who read widely, explained to me the principles of Boolean logic. We were going to be able to use it to formulate queries, and the computer would reveal the judges’ patterns.
It took a long time, but we crunched all the numbers. By culling out Spanish names, we got a glimpse into how Hispanics and Anglos were sentenced for similar crimes. One Hispanic judge, for example, seemed to treat his own people much more harshly. Another judge sent prisoners away for twice as long as the average. We couldn’t read too much into our study, however, because the numbers were relatively small. One or two life sentences could move a single judge’s numbers.
What we had to do, we agreed, was take our charts and graphs to the judges, all nine of them, and get their insights. So we started a series of interviews. If I had been working alone, I would have taken the relevant studies to each judge and spent maybe 20 minutes getting the necessary insights and caveats for the story.
Joe didn’t work that way. For him, each interview was a priceless opportunity to sit down at length with the judges, and to discuss not only our study, but also the American judicial system, the judges’ backgrounds, philosophies, what they’d studied in law school, their work as lawyers, their feelings about crime and punishment and the state of American society. We sat in the judges’ chambers, the tape recorder whirring away, and the interviews went go on and on. Most of them took more than two hours.
Back in the newsroom, we spent hours and hours transcribing the interviews. For Joe, this process was a chance to catch important points that he’d missed. He would come by my desk, excited, and show me underlined quotes from one judge or another. “We have to get this in there,” he said. “This is great.” Then he’d laugh, and tell one of the other reporters just how great our stories were going to be.
Finally it came time to write our report. This was a concern for me, because I was convinced that Joe would push to get every single detail into the stories, and that he’d water down our revelations with too much context. The thing couldn’t read like a law journal, I said. He agreed, but said it also couldn’t scream its conclusions like the New York Post.
We found a middle way. I’m not sure how much impact the report had. But it highlighted the discrepancies, and it was fair. Even a few of the judges said as much. Later it won a Silver Gavel award from the Texas Bar Association. By that point, I was working in Mexico. I think the paper was too cheap to send Joe to Austin to receive the award. I’m not sure about that. I wish he were around to ask. He’d remember. He always did.
My condolences to Joe’s widow, Monica Wong, and to all the students whose lives he touched at El Paso Community College.