Courtesy of Ilana Panich-Linsman

Keri Blakinger '14 was named a 2024 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in feature writing for her piece “When Wizards and Orcs Came to Death Row."

June 5, 2024

Former Sun Editor Keri Blakinger ’14 Named Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Texas Death Row Feature

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Former Sun staff writer and magazine editor Keri Blakinger ’14 was named a 2024 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in feature writing for her piece “When Wizards and Orcs Came to Death Row” — a portrait of men on death row in Texas.

Since 2023, Blakinger has written for the Los Angeles Times, where she covers criminal justice and the Los Angeles Police. As someone who has served prison time in the past over a 2010 drug charge, Blakinger explained that her lived experience strengthens her incarceration coverage. 

“The fact that I had done time actually gave me additional knowledge when covering these topics, and I think it also made it feel more meaningful when I would write a story that would have some kind of impact.”

The piece, published by the Marshall Project, profiles two men — Billy Wardlow and Tony Ford — who built community with other men on death row through playing Dungeons and Dragons, a popular role-playing game, despite intense barriers.

In an interview with The Sun, Blakinger explained some of the challenges of reporting on death row in Texas — where inmates face some of the harshest and most isolating restrictions in the country. Texas death row limits how often reporters can talk to inmates, Blakinger explained. 

“For a long time, the rules have been that you can only visit the same inmate once every ninety days, and it’s only for a one-hour interview,” Blakinger said. “So that meant that I could only interview the main subjects of the story for one hour every three months.”

Blakinger also described legal challenges with reporting on death row. Many death row inmates feared the impact being named in the story would have on their cases. And in the midst of Blakinger’s three years of reporting, one of her subjects — Wardlow — was executed.

Blakinger’s story does not just focus on the harsh conditions inmates face on death row. She details the way they cope by crafting dice, passing messages cell-to-cell and drawing intricate maps.

“Instead of simply describing how terrible it is to spend two decades in solitary, I could demonstrate the lengths that these guys have to go to to overcome living that way,” Blakinger said.

Throughout the piece, the stories of Wardlow and Ford are interwoven with their D&D storylines, often paralleling real-life events with those in their fantasy world.

Blakinger explained that she was inspired to make this stylistic choice when comparing her notes on Wardlow’s life and D&D character side-by-side and noticing marked similarities between the two.

“It seemed like it was almost the version of himself that he could have been, if only some things had been a little different,” Blakinger said. 

This imagination of an alternative version of their lives, Blakinger explained, was one motivating factor for why inmates turned to D&D in solitary confinement.

“A lot of these guys do feel deep regret and remorse, and this is one place in which they are able to envision a world in which things just went differently,” Blakinger said. “People in prison don’t have a lot of agency. If you’re in solitary, you just don’t have a lot of choices you are able to make on a daily basis, and D&D is nothing but choices.”

Blakinger explained that while some infamously intense prisons such as Rikers Island in New York City have received substantial coverage, many lesser-known prisons with similar conditions have received less media attention.

“There [are] some really appalling regional jails in West Virginia that rarely get written about in any sort of national outlet, and there [aren’t] large regional media that’s meaningfully covering West Virginia.”

At The Sun, Blakinger was a staff writer for the news department and editor for Red Letter Daze, a now-defunct weekend magazine supplement. Blakinger recalled covering Student Assembly meetings and explained the value she saw in reporting on systems of governance.

“I think that [with] government or student government reporting, there’s a certain sense that you’re providing a service to the community,” Blakinger said. “You’re telling them what the people who run things are doing, what decisions they’re making [and] what they’re talking about in the room when most of the public is not there to watch.”