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Festival of Books: Writers who shine a light on justice

April 22, 2012 |  3:45 pm


The stories come from different settings and from different eras, but at their core their message is the same: trying to find justice.

Authors Christopher Goffard, Lisa Davis and Sarah Burns each took on instances of justice delayed or, perhaps, never served at all, in their books. They discussed their work and the challenges they faced during the Sunday afternoon panel "The Elbow of Justice." (The phrase comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: "The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.")

These are stories of "justice gone awry in three different worlds," said journalist Donna Wares, who moderated the panel.

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Goffard, an L.A. Times staff writer, wrote about the death of a Catholic missionary from Minnesota in one of the most remote parts of Kenya. Her book is "You Will See Fire"; the reporting originally was published as a series in The L.A. Times.)

The missionary had been an outspoken critic of the corruption and crimes of the then-president of the African nation. The missionary was found dead; the police alleged it was a suicide, but those who knew the president said his men had committed the murder.

Goffard had read about the death in a brief digest item in the newspaper, three sentences, fewer than a hundred words. That prompted an investigation into figuring out how a priest and former paratrooper — thought of as a mentor, healer and obedient follower of the Catholic Church — died under such mysterious circumstances.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

"This was a quest to understand the nature of human goodness," he said, "and it turned out to be a very complicated answer."

Lisa Davis, an investigative journalist, wrote "The Sins of Brother Curtis," an exhaustive examination into a Mormon clergyman and pedophile whose crimes span decades. It was a story that she at first avoided but was drawn into. "I'm not sure if I picked the story or if it picked me," she said.

She began reporting the story with a long series of interviews. These discussions with sources would require coaxing middle-aged men into talking openly about sexual abuse and overcoming other challenges equally as difficult. "It was complicated, it was messy and, of course, I was hooked," Davis said.

In "The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding," Sarah Burns dug into the case of the five teenagers who were convicted — and later exonerated — for the brutal rape of a woman jogging through Central Park in 1989, known as the Central Park Jogger case.

She said the incident reflected the attitudes in New York City and many urban areas during that time, when they were in the grip of a crime epidemic and young black men were perceived as the force behind it. It was one, she said, in a "pattern of these stories of racial violence of different kinds." (Years later another man admitted to the crime, after the young men had served a considerable amount of jail time.)

Burns, the daughter of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, has just finished a documentary version of the story with her father.

Wares asked if any lessons from the Central Park case, one centered on racial tension more than 20 years ago, could be applied to the recent killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the drama that has followed.

"The lesson we take away," Burns said, "is that even as things changed, the suspicion, the prejudices are still here."


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