Thursday, April 11, 2024

Reporter Meribah Knight hosts talk on “The Kids of Rutherford County”

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Featured photo by Nicodemus Gabel

Story by Nicodemus Gabel

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Meribah Knight, the mind behind the Peabody Award-winning podcast series “The Promise,” gave a free lecture on MTSU campus last week, hosted by the College of Media and Entertainment. Knight discussed her podcast series “The Kids of Rutherford County,” telling the story of the county’s juvenile justice system — which had been wrongfully impressing children of false crimes — and how she brought to light the injustices done towards the children of this Rutherford County.

Knight is a senior reporter and producer at Nashville Public Radio and a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times and The New Yorker. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at New York University and her master’s at Northwestern University.

She has always had a passion for local and national news, and in “The Kids of Rutherford County,” she found a story that she knew needed to be shared with the country.

Knight came to Nashville from Chicago in 2016. Within a month of her arrival, she learned that 11 children had been arrested from Hobgood Elementary in Rutherford County. She was interested in the situation first as a citizen then began investigating what would become a three-year-long story.

During her talk at MTSU, Knight told the audience that when pursuing a good story, it must start with a question.

“You can have lots of reasons and interests, but it’s important to distill down to a question,” Knight stated, presenting the audience with the one that led her to this story: “Why are children being arrested for minor offenses?”

At first, she hit a wall. “Juvenile court is like a black box.”

Its court proceedings are held in private, its records sealed away from the public eye. Knight was forced to get creative to find answers to a host of questions. Thankfully, the door soon opened.

Lawsuits came forward, accusing Judge Donna Scott of violating the rights of the children she had put in prison. As the 11 kids’ lawsuits began, it brought information into the public record, and as the lawyers filed complaints and demanded evidence, Knight got the opportunity she needed to finally get some answers.

“This is how you get in as a journalist, lawsuits are great!” she said in her talk.

As more and more information became available, Knight began dissecting the case, creating forms and lists to track the series of events that had led to the wrongful imprisonment of these children.

The cases eventually hit federal court and public records, and Knight used their databases to start tracking the different cases. She was able to read through a 140-page investigation summary put forward by the local police, but she kept pushing.

She eventually gained access to the 36 hours of audio interviews from the case, where she found the problem ran deeper than simply one bad judge.

The problem was systemic. Scott had enforced an always-arrest policy for child cases, with officers stating they felt obligated to bring any child they found committing a felony to her courtroom.

“Juvenile court is about rehabilitation,” said Officer Crystal Templeton in an interview. “I need to do something to help these kids.”

What they did was the same as the other officers: put them in front of Scott.

As more audio became available to Knight, she realized she could bring this story to life. Knight loves crafting a narrative, a habit she attributed to her mother who was a fiction writer.

“I’m kinda a failed fiction writer because I have no original ideas,” Knight joked.

While writing the story of the judge and those who fought against her, two lawyers stood out to her: Wes Clark and Mark Downtown. Both had been juvenile delinquents with DUI charges and one with drug possession. They used their pasts to fuel their passion for protecting these children.

In an interview, Clark commented on what he saw on his first case: a 12-year-old girl arrested for accidentally setting fire to a barn, locked up in what he compared to an adult prison.

“I remember feeling like I am in a penal facility,” he told in an interview.

As Clark investigated, he found the same story with every child: They were arrested, stripped, sprayed down and thrown into prison, where some children were sexually humiliated and others put into solitary confinement.

Using the lawsuits, interviews, recordings, court filings and FOIA requests, Knight put together what she called the bedrock of her story. The pieces of the puzzle came together and meant Knight could bust open the black box holding this case — giving us the captivating story we see today.

As she finished her lecture, Knight commented on an interview she had with County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, an overseer of this situation, who refused to mention names or point fingers.

“I think there are some dedicated public servants out there whose lives have the potential to be ruined because of something that might be said from a negative perspective about them and how they conducted their professional life, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

If only, Knight said, they were able to extend that same grace they gave to the judge and jailer, to the children who came before them, to which they had given none.

Knight said that was the core of her anger and one of the reasons she pushed to bring this story to light. While this story was local, it had the potential to have people ask, “If it happened here, what’s happening in my juvenile court?” she said.

Her search for accountability from those in charge of this legal nightmare gave her story the legs it needed to stand tall and proud as it does today.

Nicodemus Gabel is a contributing writer for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact News Editor Alyssa Williams and Assistant News Editor Zoe Naylor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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