Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy was looking into the troubled life and premature death of Freddie Gray last year when he noticed something curious: Before his death, Gray, the Baltimore man who died while in police custody in April, had engaged in a series of financial transactions stemming from the settlement of a lead-poisoning lawsuit when he was a child.
In classic fashion, McCoy followed the money, and the court documents that traced it. He found that Gray and hundreds of other lead-poisoning victims in Baltimore had sold their windfall settlements for pennies on the dollar to a thriving sub-industry of financial companies. The settlements were usually highly favorable to the companies, but often left unsophisticated or mentally disabled victims such as Gray without the means to care for themselves.
For his series of Post articles last year about these “structured settlements,” McCoy was named Monday as one of the winners of the George Polk Awards in Journalism, one of the highest honors in the field.
McCoy, 30, was one of two Post winners of the national awards, presented by Long Island University. The judges also recognized a team of Post journalists who analyzed police-shooting data in a series that found disturbing patterns in police conduct.
McCoy’s stories, published between May and late December, had a powerful impact on the settlement industry. Maryland’s attorney general launched an investigation of its practices and state lawmakers introduced legislation imposing new requirements on settlement buyers. Maryland’s highest court approved sweeping changes in how companies can buy the rights to settlement payouts.
“We were looking for a way into the Freddie Gray story and this was an angle that had not been mined,” said McCoy, who joined The Post in 2014 from the Miami New Times, following his service in the Peace Corps. “There were a lot of records, and they showed the disparity between what people were selling and what they were getting. . . . These people were victims and then they were re-victimized.”
The Post’s police-shooting project, which won for national reporting, found that 990 people were shot and killed by on-duty police officers in the United States in 2015 and that most of the dead were armed white men. About a quarter of those killed had a history of mental illness or were suicidal. While only a small percentage of those killed were not armed, unarmed black men were seven times as likely to be killed as unarmed Caucasians.
The project was produced by about 70 journalists from The Post’s national, investigative, metro, design/graphics, video and photo staffs, said Cameron Barr, managing editor of the paper’s news and features sections.
The New York Times won Polk Awards in three categories, foreign, legal and military reporting.
Among the winners were:
●Foreign reporting: Ian Urbina of the New York Times for a six-part series about lawlessness on the high seas; reporters from the Associated Press (Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan), for a series on worker abuses in the Thai fishing industry.
●Legal reporting: Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Michael Corkery and Robert Gebeloff of the New York Times for a series on how corporations evade legal responsibility by adding arbitration clauses to consumer and employee contracts.
●Military reporting: Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew, Mark Mazzetti, Matthew Rosenberg, Serge F. Kovaleski, Sean D. Naylor and John Ismay of the New York Times for stories showing that Navy SEAL teams took on far broader roles than ever publicly acknowledged and often operated with little accountability.
●Local reporting: Jamie Kalven of Invisible Institute, for an investigation into the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago that was published by Slate. Kalven found a witness who impeached police accounts of the shooting and obtained the teenager’s autopsy report that showed he had been shot 16 times.
●Magazine reporting: New York magazine (Noreen Malone, Jen Kirby, Amanda Demme, Jody Quon) for a multimedia story that gathered the accounts of 35 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. The magazine published a cover photo of all 35 accusers, plus an empty chair to stand for women who might not have come forward.
●Photography: Andrew Quilty of Foreign Policy magazine for a series documenting the devastating effect of an errant U.S. airstrike that destroyed the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October.
●Radio: Nikole Hannah-Jones of “This American Life” for an investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., school district, which educated Michael Brown, the teenager killed in a police shooting.
●Television: Reporter Jim Axelrod and producer Emily Rand of CBS News for a series of reports that uncovered pharmacies peddling unproven pain creams and supplements, which they billed at inflated prices to Medicare and private insurers.
The career award will go to Simeon Booker, 97, who reported on the civil rights movement for more than 50 years for Jet magazine. Among other stories, Booker covered the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, the 1961 Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Selma, and the 1963 March on Washington.