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A distinctive retelling of a shocking tragedy

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As nurse practitioners, Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill played a pivotal role in the lives of many people in rural Holmes County, Mississippi, which with 44 percent of its residents living in poverty ranks as the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the Census Bureau.

So when the two Roman Catholic nuns were found stabbed to death in the home they shared, the news devastated friends and families, as well as the many people who came to rely on the pair for critical, life-saving medical care.

AP reporters Jeff Amy, Emily Wagster-Pettus and Rebecca Santana dominated coverage of the killings over several days with strong, on-the-ground reporting and eloquent writing. Text coverage was accompanied by compelling photos by Rogelio V. Solis. Santana and Wagster-Pettus also gave phone numbers of sources they talked with to AP Radio to interview.

AP reporters Jeff Amy, Emily Wagster-Pettus and Rebecca Santana dominated coverage of the killings over several days with strong, on-the-ground reporting and eloquent writing.

They aggressively pursued spot developments and scored a number of scoops, including that authorities had found the nuns’ vehicle abandoned, news the suspect was not a patient at the clinic where they worked or part of the nuns’ church and word that the suspect had confessed to authorities. They also detailed concerns that the nuns’ death would take a real toll on the community. Their efforts kept the AP ahead on a story of national and state interest.

It started Thursday, when Amy quickly wrote a short text piece about the killings and then hurried to the nuns’ home, where he made calls while standing on the sidewalk and tracked down people at the clinic where they worked.

Wagster-Pettus, having been tipped off about a possible arrest, handled the late-Friday night announcement and then worked the phones past midnight to get more details. She also spent two days on the ground, gathering key details from grieving friends and patients. Santana worked the phones from New Orleans to get more details on the suspect, including the confession. Both Santana and Wagster-Pettus worked on their off-days to help get the story.

The coverage resulted in tens of thousands of total Facebook and Twitter interactions. Friday’s story was the day’s top AP Tweets. A number of newspapers in Mississippi, including the Clarion-Ledger, used AP’s reporting, as did The New York Times.

Friday’s story also was particularly strong. Santana and Top Stories Desk editor Pete Brown _ using quotes Wagster-Pettus secured _ focused on forgiveness, how the nuns would have wanted it for their killer but how hard it was for those who knew them to give.

Interim South Editor Ravi Nessman praised the lead of that story as “near-perfect.”

LEXINGTON, Miss. (AP) _ In the poverty-stricken Mississippi county where two nuns were slain, forgiveness for their killer is hard to find, even if forgiveness is what the victims would have wanted.

For their dogged reporting of a story of broad appeal, and for seeking out the details required for a distinctive retelling of a shocking tragedy, Amy, Wagster-Pettus and Santana win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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