Category: Young journalist
Country/area: United States
Organisation: Florida Today
Organisation size: Small
Dear Sigma Awards Committee,
When I first met Alessandro Sassoon, he was applying for a position as a watchdog reporter and had been back in the U.S. about a year after spending three in Cambodia working for the Phnom Penh Post. He was having a hard time finding a job, let alone an employer who understood his work. As a long-time foreign correspondent, I was initially drawn to Ale’s overseas experience which had captured my attention. It was how he processed the experience that held it. That experience alone changes how one sees other human beings and themselves. It often produces either an insane curiosity and drive to better understand the world, or a dreadful cynicism. Ale revels in that curiosity and drive. He possesses an agile mind and is a wonderful lateral thinker.
As Ale’s editor, I’ve watched him channel his energy and enthusiasm into a project, quickly arriving at theories and motives, and attaching expectations to his reporting. And then the process would take a sharp turn. New information would come to light, complicating that perfect story he had already constructed in his head. He would then step back, distance himself from his expectations, process the new data and produce wonderful, clear but nuanced journalism.
During his work on our investigation into the jail death of Gregory Lloyd Edwards, a U.S. Army vet, the exact process I’ve described probably happened no less than three times. Ale kept digging and discovering more facts about this tragic case. He broke new ground by looking statewide at “excited delirium”, a controversial diagnosis used by some medical examiners in cases where police and violence are factors. It was his idea. He took the initiative, created a database and contacted every ME in the state, as well as lawyers and experts across the country. He also combed through more than 500 pages of sheriff’s office investigative reports, listened to more than 50 audio recordings and cross referenced them with hundreds of pages in the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office policy and procedure manual. He tracked down and reviewed medical examiner files, hospital reports, EMS paperwork, death certificates, Taser training manuals and restraint chair practices.
In the end, Ale almost single-handedly uncovered multiple violations of the jail’s own policies in the handling of Edwards. Ale raised questions about the integrity of Edwards’ autopsy report, the ability of police to deal with people suffering from public mental health breakdowns and the sheriff’s investigation into the death. In the process, Ale inspired far older colleagues in the newsroom and his reporting led to more than thousand letters and emails of support and calls for action that led the governor to ask for a review of the case. It was a remarkable performance for a 27-year-old reporter.
I cannot recommend Alessandro Marazzi-Sassoon enough for this award.
Description of portfolio:
On Dec 10, 2018, an anonymous tipster alerted Florida Today that an inmate — a U.S. Army veteran — died at the Brevard County Jail, possibly as the result of a confrontation with corrections deputies. Thus began a 10-month investigation into the untimely death of former US Army combat medic Gregory Lloyd Edwards.
What surfaced was the tragic story of a 38-year wounded warrior suffering from PTSD caught by a system unprepared to deal with him. Arrested after a psychotic episode outside a Walmart, he was taken to jail, resisted a booking officer and was set upon by seven deputies. Edwards was punched, pepper-sprayed, tased, and secured in a restraint chair with a spit hood over his head and pepper spray still on his face. He was denied medical care and left alone until he was found unresponsive in a cell 29 minutes after being subdued.
The medical examiner attributed Edwards’ death to “excited delirium.” The state attorney ruled the use of force justifiable.
FLORIDA TODAY’s investigation, spearheaded by watchdog reporter Alessandro Sassoon, found that excited delirium has become a go-to diagnosis in Florida when deaths happen in police custody. The paper also uncovered multiple violations of the jail’s own policies. The stories raised questions about the integrity of Edwards’ autopsy report, the ability of police to deal with people suffering from public mental health breakdowns and the sheriff’s investigation into the death.
To do these stories, Marazzi Sassoon, reviewed more than 500 pages of sheriff’s office investigative reports, listened to more than 50 audio recordings and cross referenced them with hundreds of pages in the Sheriff’s Office policy and procedure manual. In addition, he tracked down medical examiner files, hospital reports, EMS paperwork, death certificates, Taser training manuals and restraint chair practices. Sassoon combed through academic literature on excited delirium and scraped data from the state’s 25 medical examiner districts.
At one point, the sheriff’s office tried to stop the municipal police agency that arrested Edwards from releasing bodycam footage to FLORIDA TODAY. It failed. One key piece of evidence, a video recording from jail surveillance cameras, has been exempted from release by Sheriff Ivey. Florida Today is still fighting for that footage.The reporting led to calls for action and in December 2019 the case was referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The FDLE review concluded that it did not have cause to open a criminal investigation. A decision by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission to review the autopsy is still pending.
Laurie Fan, a reader and veteran, was one of hundreds who praised the coverage. She wrote: “We were taught to uphold three important virtues while serving…honor, courage and commitment. These are not just words…the words require action…action to do the right thing…even when that may be unpopular, even when it is uncomfortable, even when it requires an enormous amount of fortitude to continue. You and others are demonstrating those virtues by publishing this expose… Keep sharing these stories, it matters.”