The Walrus on editing a story by a convicted murderer

Usually, if you write a cover story for The Walrus,
the process is relatively straightforward. Not so with the April issue,
which features an essay about freedom written by a Canadian convicted
murderer serving three consecutive life sentences in Washington.

Atif Rafay was an 18-year-old Cornell University student convicted of murdering his parents and autistic sister. He maintains his innocence. In April 2010, a representative who works with wrongfully convicted prisoners sent an unsolicited essay Rafay had penned to The Walrus, which a full year later has become a cover story with the full-page headline: “This magazine contains an essay on freedom by a Canadian convicted of murder.”

In “Between the bars“, a post on The Walrus‘ blog, the story’s handling editor Jeremy Keehn explains the process — and ethical conundrums — of editing an imprisoned writer. Keehn writes:

“The essay [BC playwright and author Ken Klonsky] sent to The Walrus was the product of Atifs years in the Washington state corrections system. When [editor-in-chief John Macfarlane] and I read it, we found it compelling on many fronts. The perspective was obviously unique, and the writing articulate, even uncommonly beautiful at times. The essay also raised difficult, probing questions about the morality and effects of incarceration on everyone who enters into the prison system.

“But or perhaps, if Im being honest, I should say And it also carried the freight of one unavoidable, overarching question: Did he do it?”

Before agreeing to publish the essay, Keehn and his fellow editors felt they had a responsibility to research the case. There was plenty of material available, but, he writes, “Ultimately, the research did little to clarify the ethics of running the piece.”

“In the end, the editors had a lengthy discussion about the facts of the case, and about the implications of publishing the essay. Ultimately, we concluded, the merits of the piece dictated that we run it and leave it to readers to respond to the issues it raises, and to the case, to the extent that they wished.”

There were conditions. First, the essay couldn’t be used to declare his innocence, a condition that required careful editing and the eventual compromise of one passage where the author compares himself to a wrongfully-convicted prisoner that was believed to be guilty. Nor would The Walrus pay him directly (“lest he potentially be profiting from a heinous crime,” Keehn writes.) Instead, the magazine made a donation in his name to the John Howard Society of Canada.

The edit process was unique: Keehn worked with Rafay through an intermediary, drafts had to be entirely re-typed and fixes took agonizingly long. “It had the feel of naval combat: a slow circling followed by massive lobs, instead of the usual ongoing back-and-forth.”