Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe, a seven-part radio investigation into the suspicious death of a 17-year-old Black high school football star in Mississippi more than a decade ago, has tied for top honors from Investigative Reporters & Editors for audio in the large category. 

This is the fourth year in a row that Reveal’s audio investigations have been honored by IRE, the largest and oldest investigative journalism association in the United States. This year, Reveal tied with NPR, The California Newsroom, The Texas Newsroom, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Public Health Watch for their collaboration, Hot Days: Heat’s Mounting Death Toll On Workers In The U.S.  

Deeply reported and wrenchingly told, the Mississippi Goddam series examined how law enforcement officials at the local, state and federal levels botched their investigation into the death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a promising young football player from Lucedale, Mississippi, who was fatally shot after a traffic stop with police in 2008. Johnson’s death was originally ruled an accident. 

Over three years of digging, Reveal host Al Letson and reporter Jonathan Jones found myriad flaws in the law enforcement investigations, as well as numerous discrepancies in witness accounts. When presented with Reveal’s findings, the medical examiner in the case changed her opinion of how Johnson died, undermining the grand jury findings that he died by accidentally shooting himself. The lead investigator in the case, Joel Wallace, told Letson and Jones that he would have demanded the district attorney reopen the case, had he been aware of the information that was uncovered.  

In their comments, the IRE judges noted that Reveal cast doubts on the death investigation, saying: “The team managed to obtain records in a state notorious for keeping them secret, which was just the start of what their investigation unraveled. Hearing the medical examiner admit, on record, that the case could now be viewed through a different lens was major.”

The series skillfully situated the flaws and failures of justice in Johnson’s case within the larger history of racial violence in Mississippi, focusing on the lack of police accountability and the state’s long-troubled system for investigating suspicious deaths. Reveal found that investigators failed to probe inconsistencies in testimony, corroborate key statements and explore allegations that Johnson was routinely targeted by police prior to his death. 

Kevin Sullivan served as series editor and executive producer. Michael I Schiller was the series producer. Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda provided sound design, engineering and composing. Steven Rascón was the production assistant. Sumi Aggarwal was the editor in chief. Amy Mostafa was the production manager. Rosemarie Ho and Nikki Frick were the fact checkers. Additional help came from Nina Martin, the series digital editor; Andy Donohue, executive editor of the projects team; and Sarah Mirk, the digital producer. 

Listen to the award-winning radio documentary: Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe

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