Ethics Hero: Peter Shellem (1960-2009)

Newspapers are on the ropes these days, and sometimes I am not sorry. Even the best of them are too often sloppy, superficial, biased and incompetent. If they go down for the count, however, we will dearly miss the likes of Peter Shellem, an old-fashioned gum-shoe reporter who used his professional skills not only to find the truth, but to save lives in the process.

If you were not a regular reader of  the Harrisburg, PA Patriot-News, the odds are that you never heard of Shellem. I  hadn’t, until I read his New York Times’ obituary this morning.  His passion was investigating the cases and prosecutions of convicted prisoners when something about their guilt didn’t seem quite right to him.  The Times notes that Defense attorney Barry Scheck called Shellem ” a one man journalism innocence project.”  Shellem’s investigations freed five wrongly convicted Americans, one of them who had been in jail 28 years, since he was fourteen.

A colleague at the Patriot-Ledger, in a remembrance, writes that Shellem did what he did because he was genuinely offended that our justice system could be so unjust. In this he was ahead of his time, for only recently, in the wake of the Duke lacrosse scandal, has the  extent and impact of prosecutorial excesses begun to inspire the media and law enforcement to scrutinize past convictions and current prosecutions with due skepticism.  There are more innocent people behind bars than we once believed, as well as many guilty prisoners who did not receive the rights guaranteed them as citizens. Peter Shellem didn’t help all of them directly, but his work did.

It appears that Peter Shellem committed suicide. Though he was apparently dissatisfied with his life, we should not be. His work was meaningful; his impact on the lives of others was profound, and his work set  high ethical standards for us all. His credo: If you see a wrong, fix it. If you recognize injustice, expose it. If you detect corruption, stop it.

We should all aspire to follow his example.

3 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Peter Shellem (1960-2009)

  1. Thank you for your tribute to my husband, Pete Shellem. I appreciate the recognition you have given him and describing his impact on others as profound. I could not agree with you more.

    • Dear Mrs. Shellem: I consider it beyond kind for you to take the Dear Mrs. Shellem: I consider it beyond kind for you to take the time to acknowledge my post regarding your husband and his work. If I have one tenth the impact for good in my life as Peter had in his, I will consider it a grand success.

      I know that these holidays will be especially hard for you and your family; my time is spent thinking and writing about ethics, and your husband’s death just shows again the unfairness of life. But how proud you must be, and what a blessing to know, love and be loved by such a courageous and principled man.

      It is the rare encouragement I get from from notes like yours, and the inspiration I derive from role models like Peter Shellem, that keep me striving in the often frustrating field of ethics training. I am grateful to both of you, more than I can express.

      • Thank you Mr. Marshall. My only hope now is that there will be other journalists that will seize the opportunity to pick up where Pete left off. Certainly there are other individuals who sit in prison wrongfully convicted.My guess is hundreds if not thousands across the nation may never see the freedom they so deserve. Pete used to point out that the five people that are now free were simply the cases he had come across in our area. He knew there were others. Last week when I went to his office there were more than 80 recent letters written by inmates from PA pleading for his help. Not all are innocent of course, but amongst those letters may very well be someone who was unfairly accused and convicted. Those letters were just the most recent. This was his life. Those letters and the stories contained within were one more thing that was just too much to handle for Pete. It’s ironic isn’t it? He so wanted to save the world and did significantly improve the lives of so many through his intellect, talent and good deeds, but in the end, he was unable to save himself. I will miss him forever. Thanks again for your kind words. Joyce Shellem

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