When Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the fatal shooting of black motorist Philando Castile, a question on the mind of every reporter in the courtroom was this: How did jurors reach their verdict?
One of those reporters, Minneapolis’ Amy Forliti, had been laying the groundwork to answer that question for two weeks. Her efforts paid off with The Associated Press getting the first interview with a juror – critical insight into a case that had generated global interest since millions of people saw the aftermath of Castile's death from his girlfriend's livestream on Facebook.
Forliti started preparing for the scoop during the jury-selection process.
While the names of the jurors were not released, some information dribbled out during attorneys’ questioning.
In the case of juror Dennis Ploussard, lawyers asked him how he pronounced his name. What he said wasn’t clear from where Forliti sat, but she thought she heard “Ploussard” or “Bloussard.”
Other details came out, such as his church, his neighborhood and a court case he had been involved in. And she was able to make a guess at his age.
Armed with all that information, Forliti did Nexis searches that identified him and provided a home address, a phone number and his wife's name. The News Research Center’s Rhonda Shafner couldn’t find a cell number for Ploussard, but found a cell listed for his wife.
Something about the juror's demeanor in court suggested to Forliti that he might be receptive to talking to a reporter.
Ploussard was one of four who deliberated the case who Forliti was able to identify through her reporting. Something about his demeanor in court suggested to her that he might be receptive to talking to a reporter. So, after the verdict was read, Forliti asked colleague Steve Karnowski to go after jurors while she pursued other reporting, starting with Ploussard. He left a message at the home number, then tried the cell listed for the wife.
Ploussard’s daughter picked up, and Karnowski persuaded her to give him her father’s cell number.
Karnowski’s subsequent interview provided insight in AP's story that no one else had: The jury had been split 10-2 earlier in the week in favor of an acquittal, and neither of the two jurors who favored conviction was black. Members of the panel spent a lot of time dissecting the “culpable negligence” requirement for a conviction.
As Forliti and Karnowski covered protests following the verdict, reporters from other outlets asked Forliti how AP got the juror.
For the next several hours as Forliti and Karnowski covered protests that followed the verdict, several reporters from other outlets came up to Forliti and asked how AP got the juror.
For smart reporting and strong execution that put the AP ahead on a competitive aspect of a competitive story, Forliti and Karnowski win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.