PRX’s Reveal is launching a new investigation series that will examine the death of a Black high school student in Mississippi during a police traffic stop, giving the podcast a wider distribution platform on radio. PRX says the series called Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe will also air on 544 radio stations nationwide, including WNYC New York, KPCC Los Angeles, WBEZ Chicago, KQED San Francisco, KERA Dallas, WHYY Philadelphia, and WAMU Washington, DC.
In the investigation, journalist and host Al Letson and co-reporter Jonathan Jones investigate the death of Billey Joe Johnson, a 17-year-old Black student and top high school football recruit who reportedly died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound after being pulled over by a white police officer in Lucedale, MS on December 8, 2008. Now, after years of reporting, Letson and Jones have unearthed troubling questions and a deeply flawed investigation by law enforcement.
“We don’t know what happened to Billey Joe, and it’s not our job to find out. Our job is to ask the questions that investigators never did and to finally give the Johnson family something that they have been yearning for – to be heard,” said Letson.
Johnson’s death was not originally the reason that Letson traveled to Lucedale in 2011. He was there to report on the clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and learned about the suspicious death of a high school football star. He has worked to tell Billey Joe’s story since that time. In the seven-episode series Letson and Jones retrace the morning of Johnson’s death, first using the police case files obtained by a family attorney, and then grand jury findings. They examine the attitudes about race and interracial relationships that prevailed in southern Mississippi. And they explore Mississippi’s death investigation system, which was built on the tenets of white supremacy, the autopsy that was performed, the available evidence, and eyewitnesses. What they uncover is a deeply flawed death investigation, with law enforcement failing to follow leads, explore inconsistencies, corroborate witness accounts, or to complete crucial forensics tests.
“This story pulled me in immediately, because it reminded me of growing up as a Black kid in the South, where justice looks different for different people. It’s about the Mississippi that Nina Simone sang about, but also very much about America,” said Letson, who is also a playwright and screenwriter. “So while our series is called ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ really it should be called ‘America Goddam’,” he said.
The show, the latest outing for Reveal, which is a coproduction of PRX and The Center for Investigative Reporting, also links the case to the history of racial injustice in America, and the current reckoning around policing. Mississippi Goddam also examines how justice looks different for different people in America.
Mississippi Goddam debuts Saturday, October 16 with new episodes weekly through early December. The audio series will be released via the Reveal podcast feed.