Investigations that examined intellectual disability and the death penalty in Texas and why so many sexual assault cases in one of the state’s largest counties went unpunished are among the winners of the 2020 Texas Gavel Awards.

Journalists representing The Texas Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin’s NPR station—KUT 90.5, were selected as winners of the 2020 awards. The Texas Gavel Awards, hosted by the State Bar of Texas Public Affairs Committee, honor journalism that deepens public understanding of the legal system. An independent panel of out-of-state journalists, editors, and journalism professors judged the entries.

The winners are listed below by award category, along with descriptions of their work:

Online-only: In a rare tie, the Texas Gavel Awards judges selected entries by co-workers Jolie McCullough and Emma Platoff, both of the Texas Tribune, as winners of this category.


Jolie McCullough wins for a four-part series on intellectual disability and the death penalty. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is cruel and unusual punishment, but left it up to the states to devise their own standards for determining whether someone was intellectually disabled. The Texas Legislature has not created such standards, leaving district attorneys, judges, and advocates to grapple with a key ethical question: How should the state decide whether an inmate is eligible for the death penalty?



Emma Platoff wins for her story about how Texas billionaire John Paul DeJoria turned to lobbyists and the Texas Legislature to help him in his efforts to toss out a $123 million judgment won against him in Morocco.



Broadcast—Major-Metro: Nadia Hamdan of KUT 90.5 wins for “The Provability Gap,” a four-part broadcast that explores why in a year in which Austin had the highest number of reported rapes among large cities in Texas, only one person was convicted of the crime. The series explores why so many sexual assault cases go unpunished and the difficulties of creating a justice system that is “survivor-focused.”


Print—Major-Metro: Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman wins for his work reporting the story of a Williamson County man’s wrongful conviction for sexual assault of a child. The story details how the accused was pressed into a false confession while prosecutors withheld exculpatory information.

No awards were given in the Broadcast—Non-Metro and Print—Non-Metro categories.

The State Bar of Texas features winner bios and links to the stories at The State Bar will join the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in a virtual awards program in October to honor the winners and their work.

Laura Dawn Ouin is the founder of Third Coast Mediation & Communication in Dallas, Texas, and is passionate about conflict resolution in all forms. Equipped with over 20 years of experience in business development, conflict resolution and communication development, she facilitates solutions through strategic mediations as well as developing written communication for web, press releases, and media distribution. When it is critical that your audience needs to understand your message, Laura Dawn helps you be heard.

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