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.