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Q&A: Christopher Goffard on the story of Louis Gonzalez III

August 16, 2011 | 12:45 pm

Christopher Goffard Christopher Goffard's two-part story of Louis Gonzalez III and the horrifying crime of which he was accused captivated readers for two days in June. (Part 1 / Part 2)

As Goffard wrote, Gonzalez was arrested and charged with brutally assaulting his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his child. Readers come to learn that Gonzalez was ultimately exonerated, with the court granting him a rare Declaration of Factual Innocence.

Goffard talked with colleagues about the story, and how he reported and wrote it. Questions from editors and fellow reporters, along with Goffard's responses, follow.

Introduction by Goffard:

The story came as a tip from a source who said, "I have this case that you're not going to believe. It's about an innocent man wrongly accused of a terrible crime, and he spent time in jail for it."

Like you, I get letters every week from "innocent" men at places like San Quentin and Soledad, and they aren't immediately exciting. The source said, "It's also a nasty custody dispute." Now, those are notoriously messy cases that it's usually wise to not get involved in.

Then I saw this document that I had never seen in all my years of covering cops and courts. I spent a lot of my career in courtrooms, and I had never seen a Declaration of Factual Innocence.

At first I thought the story had to be told from the point of view of the detective. But editors said it wasn't the detective's story -- his life wasn't radically changed by this. It's Gonzalez who changes. They said, "This is a guy in a Kafka story."

When editors suggested turning around the story, how did you react?

Restructuring it seemed like the way to go. It seems obvious now. But I had to be knocked on the head.

Tell us about the scene with the airport security video.

Editors pushed me to find a scene that illustrates the moment when the detective knew Gonzalez was innocent. This is when he sees the airport video and Gonzalez’s hands are empty. He didn’t have the duffel bag.

I didn't think Gonzalez’s innocence was the big payoff -- I felt like you got that impression higher up in the story. I thought the payoff was the great reporting and incredible detail. You felt like you were literally there as the case was unfolding.

I always felt that when you're asked, "Do you consider yourself a reporter first, or a writer?," it's a false choice. You can't write without the details you get from the reporting.

Were your interviews hours-long, or were they lots of tiny ones?

Both. I'd start with a long one, then have dozens of follow-ups.

Do you have a strategy to get the subjects as immersed as much as you are in the details?

You have to warn them, explain that you're going to be asking a lot of questions that sound silly and irrelevant because you need to build this world. Sometimes it's like pulling teeth -– people don’t naturally talk about their experiences with the kind of specificity and sensory texture you need.

If someone's relating to you how he walked through his office door, it's probably not going to occur to him to describe the door, but in the story it might be useful to know whether it was a glass door or a wood door, and whether he pushed it or pulled it, and whether it swooshed or creaked. Most of the time the detail is irrelevant, but you don't know until you ask.

In reporting a narrative of 7,000 words, you're going to risk irritating people with your questions, because maybe one of 50 questions scores a hit and gives you a detail you need. But that's how you get good details, like how he lost 10 pounds in prison and had to have his suits retailored.

A lawyer I used to enjoy watching would say in depositions, "Pretend I’m a bird on your shoulder and tell me what you see, hear, smell."

And you don't always know what details you need until you’re almost done -– like the scene at the Cheesecake Factory. We needed just a little more to show what he was going through at the end when he got his life back.

How do you comb through all those details and pick which ones to use? I mean, if you learned a guy ties his shoelaces in an unusual way, is that worth putting in?

Every detail has to justify itself. Maybe the way he ties his shoes says something about his character. If he's 40 years old and he can't tie his shoes, then that says something.

Narrative stories seem to be about interesting characters. But this guy is pretty average. How do you approach a story like this? The story is interesting, but he's nothing special.

An ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances is a classic model. You can't go wrong with that.

What is the greater significance of the story? Does it point to problems in the justice system?

We wrestled with the greater social significance but decided the implications would have to speak for themselves. Commentators on the story seem to have their own ideas about the greater significance.

How did you decide on the structure?

I thought this story had to be a narrative. Think of how you'd tell it over a cup of coffee. You don't give everything away at the start. You have to withhold enough to make people want to read further. So the "inverted pyramid" would have been a death trap. So would a nut graph, because in a story like this, if you have to announce why it's worth reading, you've already lost.


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Photo: Christopher Goffard. Credit: Los Angeles Times