The Challenges of Writing an Investigative Book: Lori St John Interview
Lori St John started to investigate the death row case of Joseph O’Dell and ended up writing the book “The Corruption of Innocence”, about to be released, which got supported by many people and institutions, including Madre Tereza, Pope John Paul II and the Italian Parliament. On the other hand, she suffered intimidation for revealing secrets of America Justice System. Such an important history could not be left aside by us. Widbook team interviewed her in New York after she stopped by Widbook booth at Book Expo America. Get to know more about the challenges of writing an investigative book:
Widbook – Hi Lori. Congrats for your work done! How did you get involved by this theme?
Lori St John – I volunteered my time in an effort to give back to society and find my purpose, or mission, in life. At the time I was given the death penalty case of Joseph O`Dell. His was a case of actual innocence and was at the forefront of DNA testing in 1997. He was one of the first inmates in the United States to ask for a DNA test in 1986 to prove his innocence. As I was investigating the case I started to become convinced he was an innocent man and hence became engaged in a battle against the government for almost four years to save him from execution. At the present time I am trying to spotlight the importance of DNA testing for those incarcerated in our country (United States), especially those with a claim of innocence. I have seen over the years an increase in the amount of exonerations, over 306 wrongful convictions as of the beginning of 2013-people imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. I had no idea when I started investigating this case what I was getting myself into. It literally consumed my life and ultimately effected millions across the world. In my effort to help I championed worldwide support.
Widbook – How did you get all this support?
Lori – I think people want truth and justice. In the beginning I was alone fighting a powerful government but I thought, what would shine a light on this case in the U.S? Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, she could help I thought, so I called her. I was able to champion international support from Pope John Paul II, Madre Tereza and the Italian and European Parliaments, resulting in an international spotlight on the U.S. justice system in an effort to prevent an egregious miscarriage of justice. I was received privately by Pope John Paul II. I also received a phone call from Madre Tereza right before she passed away. This book offers insiders bird`s-eyes view of the American Justice System. It exposes what happens behind close doors, and what the American media and public never really get to see. And in this instance, an international case behind close doors, exposing suppressed evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and the intimidation of witnesses, including the intimidation of myself.
Widbook – What kind of intimidation did you receive?
Lori – The prosecution threatened to sue the newspapers in Virginia which were researching the story; they intimidated investigators, and the attorney general’s office intimidated the jailhouse snitch who admitted he lied at trial. I was the investigator, stymied every step of the way. I felt I couldn’t get justice in the US, so I reached out to the world. The story hit the front page of the widest circulating newspaper in Italy. From there I received support from the Italian Parliament, then the Vatican and ultimately the European Parliament and Mother Teresa.
Widbook – Can you give us one example of lies you found during your journey?
Lori - Joseph was charged with raping and murder a woman in Virginia. The prosecution stated that none of her belongings were ever found. Unfortunately, the defense attorney was working with the commonwealth. When I got all the defense attorney’s notes many many years later I found out that there was a crime scene photograph of the victim’s black umbrella- it was not missing at all. Why did they lie about that and why wasn’t it mentioned to the jury? It’s handle was bent and there were many notes related to fingerprints etc. It was withheld from the jury. Was it the murder weapon? That`s just one minor example of so many things I found out.
Widbook – Besides the intimidation, what was most difficult in this journey as you wrote this book?
Lori - It was difficult to write some of it. Joseph received a stay of execution so I describe in great detail what it is like to be in the death house. And that`s not an easy thing to do. When you are watching someone preparing for their death and you believe they are innocent, it is a very difficult thing to describe in words.
Widbook – Investigative books are really important. Which tips would you leave for those who are willing to write one?
I would say that if someone wanted to do something like this it is important to investigate a case thoroughly. I would advice people to keep meticulous notes, to be very detailed, make sure that you write down everything you can… people, places, smells, feelings… everything that I experienced I share with you in my book. I also reached out to the experts and the best investigators in my country, to work with me. I published articles in newspapers before the book and kept all my notes. I have a room full with documentation. 31 volumes of trial transcripts, and thousands of pages of documents that took me nearly four years to research. I kept all of those things, including all the newspapers articles, everything that would allow me to share my journey day by day and take the reader through this investigation, my journey, with me.
I think people love inspiring stories. My story will inspire people to make a difference in the world, to fight and stay true to yourself, be authentic and face opposition, adversity and criticism. Even when people are criticizing you and you are standing alone, don`t ever give up. If you realize that you are doing the right thing and you are on a mission, keep fighting and you`ll create the momentum you need to bring the world to stand by your side. My story demonstrates how one person can make a difference in the world.
If you are around Book Expo America, she is signing autographs today at 3 pm and tomorrow, Friday, May 1st, 2013, at 1 pm, in the autographs session of the fair. You can pre-order and read the first chapter of the book at her website.