A letter from death row backfires on Gawker (UPDATED)

The site let Ray Jasper whitewash the brutal killing he helped commit

Gawker has long delighted in thumbing its nose at journalism convention, and that’s fine. On the other hand it makes no bones about it being a journalism organization, and it certainly is.

Flouting convention is one thing. Allowing a death-row inmate to whitewash the facts of his case, and his role in a grisly murder, without any vetting is another matter altogether.

As part of its “Letters From Death Row Series,” it ran a long missive from Ray Jasper, who is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas next Wednesday. It had all the stuff of a compelling story: injustice, racism, an underprivileged man quoting Thoreau and Aristotle, Texas, God, etc. It went viral, and currently has 1.7 million pageviews.

Hamilton Nolan says Jasper was “convicted of participating in the 1998 robbery and murder of recording studio owner David Alejandro.” Fine, so far.

But this is how Jasper himself puts it:

I’m on death row and yet I didn’t commit the act of murder. I was convicted under the law of parties. When people read about the case, they assume I killed the victim, but the facts are undisputed that I did not kill the victim. The one who killed him plead guilty to capital murder for a life sentence. He admitted to the murder and has never denied it. Under the Texas law of parties, they say it doesn’t matter whether I killed the victim or not, I’m criminally responsible for someone else’s conduct. But I was the only one given the death penalty.

And that’s the sum and substance of the facts of the case in the Gawker post.

Except to say those facts are in dispute would be a wild understatement. They are a grotesque misrepresentation of a record clearly established at trial.

This record came to light on Gawker only after the murdered man’s brother wrote to Gawker in protest, a letter he should never have been forced to write. Here’s what really happened (emphasis mine):

Ray Jasper knew well that he could not rob David’s studio equipment without being fingered to the police by him later. So it was, seven to ten days prior, Jasper made the decision to end David’s life. He enlisted the help of two others. That night (and this is all from on-the-record courtroom testimony and statements he gave police in his confession) the three men made the recording appointment. They were there for roughly two hours working, recording, David sitting at the control console. Jasper admits to then grabbing David by his hair, yanking his head back and pulling the kitchen knife he brought with him across David’s throat, slicing it open. David jumped up and grabbed at his own throat from which blood was flowing. He began to fight for his life. At this point Jasper called to one of his accomplices who rushed into the room with another knife. His accomplice then stabbed David Mendoza Alejandro 25 times. David collapsed, already dead or dying—we will never know. The final stab wound was at the back of David’s neck; the knife plunged in and left there…

At one point while he was on the stand testifying, he asked to speak to us— David’s family members. He looked us square in the eye and exclaimed “I didn’t kill your son. He was one of the nicest guys I ever met, but I did not kill him.” Jasper’s reasoning was that since the M.E. cited the 25 stab wounds as the cause of death and not the throat slit committed by Jasper, he was technically not guilty of murder.


Alejandro’s version is supported by a judge’s sentencing opinion drawing on the facts of the trial, which Gawker links to but doesn’t quote.

So we learn, belatedly, that Nolan short-armed his account of Jasper’s crime and then allowed Jasper to mislead the world about it. And this is not some Texas railroading. Jasper confessed to slitting David Alejandro’s throat.

But hey, Gawker got some clicks!

(UPDATE: Gawker Editor John Cook says suggesting they ran the letter for clicks is “galactically stupid.” Fair enough. My point is, Gawker got them, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have had the post not glossed over Jasper’s crime. I’ve moved up the following three paragraphs from the bottom of the post to make that point clearer.)

If the true facts of the case had been made clear, it’s doubtful that Jasper’s letter would have merited publishing at all. Or if it did, it would have been a very different column with a very different response. It’s worth noting that none of Gawker’s other posts in its Letters From Death Row series, most of which included more detail on the crimes (“On Christmas day, he suffocated the child to death, and later buried her in a shallow grave outside of Houston”) went nearly as big.

Alejandro’s rebuttal, “A discussion of the Ray Jasper Death Row issue from a family member of the victim,” hasn’t gone quite as viral. It has gotten about 2 percent of the tweets Jasper’s sob story got.

At the very least, Gawker should update Jasper’s piece with a link to Alejandro’s, but it hasn’t even done that much.

This isn’t to say that there’s no value in soliciting and running letters from prisoners facing execution. Clearly there is. But a letter is basically an opinion column, and while columnists should have wide latitude, wholesale distortion of an established record—a record to which Gawker had easy access—is far out of bounds. Just because The Wall Street Journal op-ed page does it doesn’t make it right.

It’s an old issue. How much latitude do you give opinion writers? It’s a judgment issue, but Gawker didn’t use any.

And no, allowing the facts to be fixed later, in a separate post—by the victim’s brother, no less—doesn’t make it okay.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,