Published: April 6, 2023

By Malinda Miller (EnglJour’92; MJour’98)
Illustration courtesy of ProPublica

While reporting on a suspicious death in Louisiana, Brett Murphy came across a method used to determine guilt or innocence he hadn’t previously encountered, 911 call analysis.

Murphy, a reporter for ProPublica, filed more than 80 open records requests to get his hands on thousands of emails, police reports and other records in his quest to find out whether people’s word choice, cadence and even grammar on a 911 call were really being used to help put them in prison.

He documented more than 100 cases across 26 states where law enforcement agencies had used 911 call analysis to investigate, arrest or convict defendants, despite a consensus among experts that it’s junk science.

His reporting resulted in “Words of Conviction,” a two-part series and this year’s winner of the 2023 Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting.

The Al Nakkula Award honors the late Al Nakkula, a 46-year veteran of the Rocky Mountain News, whose tenacity made him a legendary police reporter. This year, almost 40 national media outlets submitted entries to a panel of four judges, including Chris Osher, senior investigative reporter/editor of The Gazette; Jennifer Brown, co-founder and reporter at The Colorado Sun; Joey Bunch, retired politics writer and editor at The Gazette; and Tina Griego, editor, reporter and coach at the Colorado News Collaborative. 

I would say part of what stood out for us was that Brett’s work exposed something that was so unique. None of us knew that 911 call analysis was regularly being used by police and prosecutors,” Osher said. “To think that a person could be targeted at times for just calling 911 for help was revelatory. To think that prosecutors and police were relying on key phrasings to determine who they believed was guilty or innocent also defied common sense as well as ongoing research that found doing so was unreliable and prone to error."

Each year, Nakkula contest judges look for stories that meet the highest journalistic standards, help readers understand complex issues and solutions, show a commitment to community and bring about societal change.

"All this work, along with others submitted, blew each of us away," Osher said. "It was heartening to see the quality of work out there.”

This year’s runner up is the StarTribune’s five-part series “Juvenile Injustice,” which examined how Minnesota's juvenile justice system is failing young people, families and victims of violence. The contest judges were especially impressed by how reporters Liz Sawyer and Chris Serres obtained juvenile records in order to provide detailed accounts of how youth crime affected young offenders and victims. 

The series is the “perfect balance of smart data reporting and rich storytelling, the kind that's accomplished only by earning the trust of sources who've been through the worst of the system,” Brown said. “The timing of the project is on point, given the concern nationally over the rise in youth violence, the efforts in multiple states toward restorative justice, and questions about whether restorative justice actually works.” 

For more than 30 years, the Al Nakkula Award, co-sponsored by The Denver Press Club and the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information, has recognized the best journalism on crime and justice from around the country. 

The first place award will be presented to Murphy during The Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon Award ceremony April 14.