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Gift enables investigative journalism class to probe old murder case

December 19, 2005 By Dennis Chaptman

An investigative journalism class, backed by a $5,000 gift from a UW–Madison graduate, deconstructed in painstaking detail an 11-year-old Dane County murder case that is also being examined by the UW Law School’s Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Graduate journalism students in Deb Blum‘s class have conducted dozens of interviews – including a prison interview with Penny Brummer, who was convicted of first-degree homicide in the case, visited the crime scene, did reams of photocopying and hired forensics experts to analyze some of the evidence in the 1994 case.

Although students in the semester-long course have not proven Brummer was wrongfully convicted, they have gained valuable knowledge about the persistence, tools and techniques of investigative reporting.

“We were able to raise a lot of questions that may never be answered, but were never even asked,” says Adam Hinterthuer, a student in the class. “How 12 people can come up with irrefutable evidence that she did it is beyond me.”

Brummer was convicted in the March 15, 1994 shooting death of Sarah Gonstead, whose body was found a month later less then two miles from where witnesses said the two were seen drinking together the night before Gonstead’s death.

Supporters of Brummer have raised questions about the evidence, the circumstantial nature of the case and whether police overlooked other potential leads.

Although thorough investigative reporting requires tenacity, it also calls for money. That’s where Sharon Stark, a Spring Green marketing professional and UW–Madison political science graduate, came in: providing the gift that enabled the class to do its digging.

“Finding and reporting the truth is essential to a free society,” she says. “As a result of this class, a couple of students are thinking more seriously about careers in journalism. If I’ve been a part of that decision, I’ve already seen rewards from my gift.”

Stark, who took many journalism classes as a student, also attended several of the class sessions. “Participating in the class has been exhilarating. It’s an opportunity to be back in the classroom with students who are eagerly seeking the truth,” she says.

Blum, a journalism and mass communication professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, says Stark’s gift shows the power of a targeted donation. Blum and Stark hope to do the class again next fall and examine another topic.

“Investigative reporting is reporting in the service of good, and a voice for people without power, and we don’t do enough of it,” Blum says. “I want our students to be trained to think of journalism in that way and to practice it. It’s been a huge learning experience.”

Blum says her class and the Wisconsin Innocence Project have worked along parallel planes, supporting each other’s work, but not really collaborating.

“Working in this multi-disciplinary way is great,” Blum says. “We share information with them, but journalists can’t be working with the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Innocence Project can’t be telling all to journalists.”

John Pray, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project – which represents Brummer – says the students’ investigation has been potentially helpful to the project’s work.

“They have more manpower to check out leads,” Pray says. “Our interest is uncovering the truth, and that’s their interest, too. More eyes looking at a case can be a helpful thing, and they’ve done a very conscientious job.”

Hinterthuer says that the number of people in the 15-week class has allowed students to delve deeply into various aspects of the case.

“It’s been a great experience to get into the thick of it: doing the interviews, paring down the information in what’s useful, and approaching people who don’t want to be approached,” he says.

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