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Looking back at some of the best Texas Tribune reads of 2023

By Matthew Watkins, The Texas Tribune

Looking back at some of the best Texas Tribune reads of 2023” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The news once again never stopped for our Texas politics and public policy publication in 2023: A high-stakes legislative session, four subsequent sessions after that and an impeachment trial thrown in for good measure.

But we at The Texas Tribune are proud that our journalists found the time to dig up stories that stood out from the news cycles — stories that held the powerful accountable, shed light on the experiences of everyday Texans or taught us more about our neighbors.

As we wrap the year, here are some that we’re particularly proud of that still feel relevant today.

She was told her twin sons wouldn’t survive. Texas law made her give birth anyway.

Miranda Michel cradles her twin sons Helios and Perseus Langley in her arms a day after delivery at Medical City Dallas in Dallas, TX on August 10, 2023. Unable to legally terminate the pregnancy in Texas despite the twins having lethal fetal anomalies and a zero percent chance of viability, Michel carried her twins to term.
Miranda Michel, 26, learned at 16 weeks that the twins she was carrying would not survive. But Texas law does not allow abortions in cases of lethal fetal anomalies. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

By Eleanor Klibanoff and Shelby Tauber

Miranda Michel was four months pregnant when she found out her twins had abnormalities that wouldn’t let them survive outside the womb. Abortion wasn’t an option in Texas. So she lived the next five months with the pain of knowing her babies wouldn’t survive. From the story:

As spring slid into summer, Miranda’s body began to transform. Her organs shifted, her hips widened, her back ached. She had heartburn and constant, creeping exhaustion. When she laid down, it felt like the whole world was pressing down on her. She couldn’t lift her 9-month-old, or sit on the floor to help her 4-year-old tie her shoes.

It was uncomfortable and inconvenient, and deliciously familiar. So much of this pregnancy was unfolding as usual — the doctor’s appointments, the little kicks, the strangers cooing at her on the street. It was all so normal, it was hard to believe there might be a tragedy unfolding inside her.

But she knew things were different this time. Miranda wasn’t buying tiny baby clothes or decorating a nursery. Instead of planning a baby shower, she was preparing for a funeral. She spent more and more time online, desperately searching for some nugget of hope to get her through to the next day.

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“Someone tell me what to do”

Collage by ProPublica. Body camera stills obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune
Credit: Collage by ProPublica. Body camera stills obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune

by Lomi Kriel, Lexi Churchill and Jinitzail Hernández

The Texas Tribune, along with its partners at ProPublica and FRONTLINE, analyzed mounds of investigative reports, law enforcement interviews and videos from the scene of the crime to piece together some of the most detailed accounts of the 2022 shooting at a Uvalde elementary school. We found that while students and teachers did their jobs, law enforcement fell short. From the story:

In the wake of the Columbine shooting, law enforcement agencies across the country began retooling protocols to prevent long delays like the one that kept officers there from stopping the two shooters. Key among the changes was an effort to ensure that all officers had enough training to engage a shooter without having to wait for more specialized teams.

More than two decades later, law enforcement’s chaotic response in Uvalde and officers’ subsequent explanations of their inaction show that the promise of adequate training to respond to a mass shooting has yet to be fully realized.

Officers failed to set up a clear command structure. They spread incorrect information that caused them to treat the shooter as a barricaded suspect and not an active threat even as children and teachers called 911 pleading for help. And no single officer engaged the shooter despite training that says they should do so as quickly as possible if anyone is hurt. It took 77 minutes to breach the classroom and take down the shooter.

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“He has a battle rifle”: Police feared Uvalde gunman’s AR-15

The gunman's AR-15 style rifle lays in a supply closet of Room 111 at Robb Elementary School.
The gunman’s AR-15 style rifle lays in a supply closet of Room 111 at Robb Elementary School. Credit: Law enforcement photo

by Zach Despart

Texas law enforcement’s bungled response to the 2022 shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary spurred international scrutiny, fierce criticism and lawsuits that are still winding through the courts. The Texas Tribune obtained a trove of records about what prompted the delay in confronting the gunman. One big reason, The Tribune found, was that officers were afraid of the military-style weapon the shooter used. From the story:

Even though some officers were armed with the same rifle, they opted to wait for the arrival of a Border Patrol SWAT team, with more protective body armor, stronger shields and more tactical training — even though the unit was based more than 60 miles away.

“You knew that it was definitely an AR,” Uvalde Police Department Sgt. Donald Page said in an interview with investigators after the school shooting. “There was no way of going in. … We had no choice but to wait and try to get something that had better coverage where we could actually stand up to him.”

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Family legacies and the state’s Jim Crow past underlie a fight over mineral rights on a stretch of South Texas scrubland

Louis Eckford’s name is seen pictured in an Abstract of Title dated November 21, 1889, declaring his purchase of land from the guardian of Lula Haskins Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Karnes City.
Louis Eckford’s name is seen pictured in an Abstract of Title dated November 21, 1889, declaring his purchase of land from the guardian of Lula Haskins, in Karnes City on Aug. 17. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

by Alexa Ura

Oil and gas were discovered under a white family’s Karnes County tract of land. Then, it was discovered that a Black family had claim to half of the property, and a fight ensued over mineral rights, history and the long tail of discrimination. From the story:

Out on this expanse in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale, the circumstances surrounding how these acres of scrub and ranchland passed from one family to the other are complex, involving life during a time of overt racism, an insanity trial, a clouded deed of trust and the sale of an estate. All is now under scrutiny as the courts determine whether the Korths effectively divested the Eckfords of their half-interest over the more than seven decades during which the land has been in their possession.

Theirs is a story of a land dispute but it’s also about legacy. About one family wanting to hold on to the investment of generations and another seeking justice over what went missing in the days of Jim Crow.

And none of it would have happened but for a shale play that brought oil giants and their hungry interests to town, throwing into question who rightfully owns the 147.5-acre tract.

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A storied Texas Panhandle newspaper halts publication after 130 years

Canadian Record editor Laurie Ezzell Brown talks about the current state of small Texas newspapers. Her newspaper has ceased its print publication leaving only the online version to serve the community’s needs.
Laurie Ezzell Brown, at her desk on March 8, is the editor and publisher of the 130-year-old newspaper The Canadian Record, which serves a small town in the Texas Panhandle. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

by Nic Garcia

The owner of The Canadian Record was ready to retire. What did it mean for the community that no one wanted to take her place? From the story:

Throughout the decades, Brown would become a sentinel for Canadian — always demanding the best, as she saw it, for her town. Brown’s editorial page called on elected officials to strike a decades-old and forgotten kennel code that had prohibited residents to own more than three dogs. It would support a private youth correctional facility to create jobs in a town defined by booms and busts of the oil and gas industry. It would publicly support investments for the football stadium, but only after Brown met with the superintendent to ensure the middle school’s auditorium was also refurbished.

“I think you have to fight every day for the survival of a small rural town,” Brown said.

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No water, roads or emergency services: How climate change left a rural neighborhood nearly uninhabitable

Robert “Bobby” Lawrence and his wife Linda outside their home along highway TX-105 on August 22, 2023.
Robert Lawrence and his wife Jinelle outside their home in Cleveland, less than 10 minutes from the home they had to abandon in Sam Houston Lake Estates after Hurricane Harvey flooded it. “What I loved the most was that we could ride our horses anywhere we wanted,” Jinelle Lawrence said of living in the neighborhood. After Harvey, they had to give away their horses. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

by Erin Douglas

In Liberty County, one neighborhood has been slowly abandoned as years of flooding and intense rains prompted a spiral of decline. A struggling buyout program shows the complexities and limitations of “managed retreat” from disaster-prone areas. From the story:

Water hasn’t flowed to the homes in this neighborhood in more than three years — the water company says it can’t get vehicles in to maintain its well — and first responders won’t attempt to navigate the neighborhood’s narrow bridge and eroded dirt roads.

When someone is sick or injured, residents have to drive, or carry, their neighbors out of the woods to reach medical help.

This river bottom flooded often in the past, former residents said, but not like it has in the last decade. Climate change has likely intensified flooding and accelerated erosion, experts said.

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These rural Texans opted out of a degree. The community college down the street wants them back.

Nikki Murray feeds her granddaughter, Auriella Murray, 1, while sitting with her family members at her home on Sunday, December 3, 2023 in Vernon. Murray, who works as a cashier at McDonald’s, attended Vernon College in the early 2000s but withdrew to raise her two kids while in an abusive relationship. College is still a dream for her, but she is currently settled in her job and continues to focus on caring for her family.
Nikki Murray feeds her granddaughter, Auriella Murray, 1, while sitting with family members at her home. Her kids have encouraged her to go back to college but she feels settled in her job and continues to focus on caring for her family. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

by Sneha Dey

To survive, Texas community colleges have to prove their worth. But residents of the rural north Texas town of Vernon are questioning what’s right for them. From the story:

There was a time when Nikki Murray wanted to be a nurse, like the aunts who raised her. But she never applied for the nursing program; she didn’t think she would be accepted. Then she imagined she could become a probation officer. With a criminal justice degree, she thought she could help Black men get a fairer footing out of prison.

Murray had dreams that are now all smudged up and hard to decipher.

“I got to go back,” she said. “But when your bones ache like mine, I don’t know. I’m pretty much settled here.”

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Can John Sharp protect his maroon empire?

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp poses for a portrait in his office on Monday, March 27, 2023 in College Station, TX.
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp in his office on March 27 in College Station. In 2021, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents extended Sharp’s contract until 2028, giving him five more years to continue his empire building. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

by Kate McGee

The Texas A&M University System Chancellor has spent 12 years masterfully navigating Texas politics to pursue his goal of making A&M an elite Texas public university. But it’s hard to keep everyone happy on and off campus these days. From the story:

Sharp, 73, blames his stunted political career on an impulsive decision to eat a bunch of crickets.

He recounted the story on a flight to Austin on the system’s private jet last year. Over the din of the maroon and white plane’s motor, Sharp said he was with Rick Perry and some other college friends on a search for tiny cans of Schlitz beer to liven up a weekend trip, when Perry flashed a middle finger to passing motorcyclists.

The men, whose jackets bore the name of the Bandidos motorcycle gang, parked their bikes and walked toward them, Sharp recounted. He knew they were not to be messed with, especially by a group of drunk college students.

“Perry’s behind me squealing like a pig stuck under a gate,” Sharp recalled. He shouted, “Do something! Do something!”

It was cricket season. So, as Sharp tells the story, he grabbed two handfuls of the insects off the ground and stuffed them in his mouth.

“The cricket juice is running down my face and these guys looked at me and said, ‘Oh you’re too f-ing drunk. Let’s leave,’” Sharp said, admitting he was just as scared as Perry.

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A former NFL player persuaded politicians that his child ID kits help find missing kids. There’s no evidence they do.

Credit: Lauren Crow for The Texas Tribune and ProPublica

by Kiah Collier and Jeremy Schwartz

Texas lawmakers allocated about $5.7 million on kits promoted by a former NFL player that promised to keep kids safe. The problem is: their effectiveness was grossly exaggerated. This story, reported by our investigative team co-run by ProPublica, caused the state to stop investing in the kits. From the story:

The news organizations did just that, contacting 15 police departments and sheriff’s offices in the state’s major metropolitan areas, including three Kenny Hansmire mentioned specifically.

Out of the 11 law enforcement agencies that responded, none could recall using a kit to help find a runaway or kidnapped child. The executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas also said he could not think of a case in which the kits helped.

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“The first child is the one that pays the most”: How one family carved out Medicaid coverage for a rare treatment

Gabe Nolasco points to a decoration during a holiday light exhibit outside of Cook's Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas on Dec. 2, 2023. Gabe Nolasco, 4, is currently recovering from a thymus transplant as treatment for his congenital athymia. As such, the Nolascos quarantine and wear masks in spaces with other people in order to avoid contamination.
Gabe Nolasco, 4, points to a holiday light exhibit outside the Cook’s Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth on Dec. 2. Nolasco is currently recovering from a thymus transplant as treatment for his congenital athymia. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

by Neelam Bohra

Gabe Nolasco was born without a vital immune system gland. His family spent years in quarantines and fighting for state insurance to cover a procedure that could keep him alive. From the story:

Medicaid coverage — the health insurance for low-income families, disabled adults and pregnant Texans — often trails medical advances. But hurdles of clerical details stalled the process even after the Nolascos gained approval.

And this time, it had left them no choice but to go home and start again.

Chelsy craned her neck toward the backseat to share the bad news with Gabe. His “bucket list for when he has an immune system” — making friends, water parks, hugging Grandma — would have to wait a little longer.

Eric turned the car around, shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun filtering in through the window. They decided to pick up pizza for their three other children, Johnathan, Ella and Zay, who would be confused and sad after already saying jittery goodbyes to Gabe earlier that day.

“Back to square one,” Eric said. “It’s like we start from square one every couple months.”

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This class president is the model of a successful Texas teen. After a ban on trans health care, she can’t wait to leave the state.

Topher Malone’s mother helps her put on her graduation attire in their home in Round Rock the morning of the ceremony on May 26, 2023.
Topher Malone’s mother helps her get ready for graduation day in her bedroom in Round Rock on May 26. Credit: Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune

by William Melhado and Leila Saidane

For one Round Rock teen, getting accepted to Harvard was her ticket out of a state that she says is hostile to trans youth. Now Texas will ensure young people like her no longer have access to transition-related care. From the story:

Malone told the lawmakers that she’d applied to colleges in Texas. But as soon as she received an offer from a college outside of Texas — Columbia University in New York, which came before her acceptance to Harvard — she had decided to leave the state.

“I don’t want to stay here for college anymore because of what this state government is doing to trans people like me, and I can’t stand it anymore,” Malone told the committee members.

“I’ve never had to go out and testify about why I deserve to live to legislators,” she said later.

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Rep. Andrew Murr took on Ken Paxton and lost. He has no regrets.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Junction.
Republican state Rep. Andrew Murr stands in his law office on Oct. 3 in Junction. Murr lead the House Republican effort to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

by Zach Despart

A small-town state representative was thrust into the spotlight this year when the committee he oversees took the lead in impeaching Attorney General Ken Paxton. Attempts to remove Paxton from office failed, but Murr says he’s confident he did what is morally right. From the story:

Murr’s father, Hardy, drowned while trying to save a ranchhand in 1990. Murr was 13; his sister was 9. He was granted a hardship driver’s license so he could haul feed and do other work on the ranch.

Murr said his father’s death pushed him to overcompensate by participating in as many extracurriculars as he could. He played lineman on the football team (a feat considering his thin frame), competed in track and tennis, and acted in plays.

He studied agricultural development at Texas A&M University before returning to neighboring Mason County. But he knew the hardscrabble life of a rancher would mean constant worry about making ends meet, so he decided to attend law school at Texas Tech University. After a few years in corporate law in Dallas, he hung his shingle in Junction, the Kimble County seat.

Politics, too, was in the family history. Murr’s grandfather, Coke Stevenson, served as House speaker, lieutenant governor and governor in the mid-1900s. He famously lost the hotly contested 1948 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate to Lyndon B. Johnson.

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