United States Project

Here’s what happened when a local reporter’s coverage was turned into a play

February 12, 2016
A scene from "Justice in the Embers

Mike McGraw has witnessed a lot in 40 years of reporting. One thing he never expected to see: a stage production based on his work.

But that’s exactly what’s happening this month in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where a local theater group is staging a one-act play based on McGraw’s years-long investigation into a 1988 explosion that killed six firefighters. The play, which highlights questions about convictions won by federal prosecutors, is part of a program designed to help investigative reporters bring their stories to new audiences, and allow audiences to engage with those stories in new ways.

For McGraw, the experience has been rewarding—if also a bit nerve-racking.

“My mind’s still blowing up over it,” he said, days after the debut of “Justice in the Embers” at Kansas City’s Living Room Theatre. The play, he adds, “has raised more dust around town than my writing 20 stories over 10 years.”

The case depicted in “Justice in the Embers” is “kind of the Kennedy assassination in Kansas City,” as McGraw has said. It has haunted the city for decades, inspiring a segment on Unsolved Mysteries and a number of conspiracy theories. In 1997, nine years after the crime, federal prosecutors were able to convict five suspects in the case, but questions have lingered ever since. No physical evidence or eyewitness testimony of the crime was presented, and the case was built largely on the word of informants, many of them convicted criminals who struck deals with prosecutors before testifying that they had heard the defendants admit their guilt.

In 2006, McGraw, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter then working for the Kansas City Star, began looking into the case. Over the next two years, he found inconsistencies in the informants’ testimony and talked to several witnesses who said they had lied under coercion by investigators. His reporting in the Star prompted a federal prosecutor to call for the Department of Justice to take another look at the case.

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The resulting report, completed in 2011, concluded that there had been no serious prosecutorial misconduct, and no reason to doubt the convictions. But it also raised some new questions, by citing evidence that other perpetrators may have been involved. And authorities’ initial refusal to release the full report, rather than a two-and-a-half page summary, left many people–including McGraw–feeling that the older questions were never fully addressed. (A heavily redacted version of the full report was later released.)*

After retiring from the Star in 2014, McGraw joined KCPT, the local public TV station, as part of its new Hale Center for Journalism. His boss at KCPT heard about the StoryWorks program, a project launched in 2013 by the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting that synthesizes live theater and investigative journalism. After getting started with a series of productions based on CIR’s work, StoryWorks was looking to adapt reporting from other outlets. KCPT suggested a show based on McGraw’s reporting, and the pitch was quickly accepted.

Last fall, CIR commissioned Kansas City playwright Michelle T. Johnson, who is herself a former journalist, to write a play based on McGraw’s coverage. The show focuses on Bryan Sheppard, the youngest of the five convicts in the case, currently incarcerated at a federal facility in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Only 17 at the time the crime took place, Sheppard is now hoping for a re-sentencing based on a series of recent Supreme Court rulings that bar life imprisonment for juvenile offenders. When the latest ruling was handed down late last month, Sheppard had a new legal avenue—and Johnson had to write a new ending for her play at the last minute. If the story changes again during the show’s run, the producers say, the play will be revised again accordingly.

The play presents Sheppard as a now-mature man who has reconnected with his Cherokee heritage in prison while maintaining his innocence. Other characters include Sheppard’s mother and attorney, who visit him in prison, and three fictional characters: two prison guards who argue over Sheppard’s guilt or innocence, and a firefighter who appears as a sort of Greek chorus to express the anxieties and fears faced by firefighters and their families, tragically realized in the 1988 blaze.

Though he exposed alleged improprieties in the prosecution of the case, McGraw says, “I’m not out here banging the drum and saying [Sheppard] is innocent, because I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” The show doesn’t directly argue for Sheppard’s innocence, either—Johnson, who notes that her script had to clear two legal reviews, says she “wasn’t trying to take a position one way or the other”—though it puts Sheppard at the center of the narrative, and offers a sympathetic portrayal.

McGraw, who has gotten to know Sheppard well over the years, and who consulted with the play’s writer and director throughout the project, hesitates when asked whether the production advocates more forcefully for Sheppard than his reporting has. “I may be too close to it to give you an unbiased answer,” he said. “I don’t know. [The play] probably goes further than my stories did.” But, he said, the fictional characters Johnson added to the story—the security guards and the fireman—offer a perspective that wasn’t present in his own reporting, because those who might have offered a dissenting voice, like fire department officials and police and prosecutors, would not comment for his stories.

The play itself has generated plenty of comments, many of them in the “talk-back” session after the conclusion of each performance, in which audience members can ask questions and react to what they’ve seen. These discussions allow a level of engagement that a news story by itself can’t provoke, says Jennifer Welch, the show’s director, who helped develop the StoryWorks program with CIR. “We might share it on Facebook, but we don’t really talk about it.”

At the well-attended performance I saw last Saturday, the talk-back panel included McGraw, Johnson, Sheppard’s attorney, and Tom Jackman of The Washington Post, who covered the trial back in the 1990s for the Star and has recently written about prosecutors’ reliance on informants with incentives. Audience members included the attorney who defended one of Sheppard’s co-defendants, the wife of one of the informants who has said he was coerced, and even a court clerk from the 1997 trial who unabashedly criticized the “idiot jurors” and declared, “These people are innocent.” As the audience filed out, an activist handed out flyers arguing for Sheppard’s release.

That audience mix was pretty typical, at least through the first weekend of shows, and McGraw says the discussions ended up being “one-sided” in opposition to the convictions. But the sessions, he says, have also introduced him to new sources and spurred conversation among people who all have a stake in the case but wouldn’t have met otherwise.

And there’s no guarantee the response will continue to be totally supportive. Since he began investigating this story, McGraw has drawn fierce pushback from some family members of the victims, as well as firefighters, police, and prosecutors. The show seeks to honor the firefighters who died while raising questions about the case, but those feelings haven’t gone away. On social media, some critics have accused KCPT and CIR of exploiting the tragedy.

“I’m nervous every night because some of the families have taken this kind of personally with me—like, why are we reopening this old wound?” says McGraw.

The families and representatives from the fire department and the prosecutors have been invited to attend, he says, but none of these dissenting voices have shown up—not so far, anyway. The play runs through Feb. 20.

Meanwhile, McGraw says he’s talking to Johnson about adapting another local news story for the stage. And the community response to “Justice in the Embers” has opened up new avenues for him to continue reporting on the case that, as he wrote recently, he still thinks about “almost every day.”

This passage has been amended to note that a redacted version of the full report was ultimately released.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.