As the son of the late Tim Russert, the longtime moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, Luke Russert grew up in Washington politics. So it was natural for him to cover Capitol Hill when he joined NBC News in 2008. His coverage of the scandal involving sexting House member Anthony Weiner helped nudge the Congressman into resigning.
But on Sunday, in his first report for Dateline NBC (7/6c), Russert trades in the halls of Congress for the clanging barred doors of Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He will present a long-running investigation on the case of Jon-Adrian Velazquez, who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for the shooting death of a former NYPD officer. Velazquez has maintained his innocence, a claim that Dateline regularly gets from prison inmates. But in this tale, Velazquez, who has already served 10 years of a 25 years-to-life sentence, becomes a character viewers will be pulling for. Russert shared his thoughts about his experience with The Biz.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you get drawn into this story?
Luke Russert: I got involved in November 2008. The producer, Dan Sleplian — who is really the backbone, in that he's done so much of the investigative work all throughout the years — approached me and said, "I have this story and I think as a younger, innocent voice who's never gone through all this or visited a prison before or seen inside the criminal justice system would make you an interesting correspondent for it." It was originally going to be my journey through all this, but once we investigated the case, we saw this story should be much more about Velazquez and his case and its flaws.
TV Guide Magazine: How did it feel to be on the inside?
Russert: I'll be the first to tell you that I grew up in very fortunate circumstances. Prison visits definitely were not the norm growing up. Nor was talking with convicted murderers. It was a real eye-opening experience. The full lack of control had a profound effect on me. Even though you know you're allowed to leave, when you walk through the doors and hear them lock behind you and the guard explains to you they will not negotiate your release if a convict takes you hostage, I thought my life and my freedom are now completely in the hands of somebody else.
TV Guide Magazine: Velazquez was such a charismatic guy. He knew how to tell his story on camera.
Russert: I cover politicians and a lot of them are very well versed in speaking in public and speaking to the camera. It's a craft they've honed their entire careers. Velazquez, from the moment I met him — I had never come across anyone who spoke with such power and determination. You just sort of felt he was telling the truth by the way he was coming across. One of the first things I said to him was if you're not telling the truth you're going to embarrass yourself and embarrass the whole process. He goes "Please Luke, if you can, prove me guilty. I want you to prove me guilty. It cannot be done." That was a powerful statement from him — something I certainly was not expecting. And we tried.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you personally think he's innocent?
Russert: If you look at the facts of the case as they were given in court and the facts we uncovered in our 10-year investigation, it's very difficult to prove him guilty. Could he be the best liar in the history of lying? Sure. There is no DNA. There is no physical evidence. The accomplice in the case claims that they met Velazquez on the day of the murder. There are a lot of facts which show his conviction was ultimately flawed.
TV Guide Magazine: When you were hired by NBC News, you were positioned as the "youth guy," covering the presidential campaign. It was a short-term deal and you were trying this out but keeping your options open. You're now in your fourth year at the network. Is it safe to say TV news is your career path going forward?
Russert: It's certainly what I'm doing in the immediate future. I was signed up for a year and if I didn't like it, I could have gone to grad school. After covering Capitol Hill, I'm seeing it's a profession where I can make a difference in people's lives if you use it effectively as a tool. As of right now, I'm very happy with political journalism and broadcast journalism. One thing I've known from watching my dad on Meet the Press, when you ask people about their future, never say never. It will come back and bite you one day.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you keeping in touch with Anthony Weiner?
Russert: I have not spoken to Representative Weiner since the summer. But he's now a father so I congratulate him on that.
TV Guide Magazine: Viewers remember the enthusiasm Tim Russert brought to presidential campaign coverage every four years. What do you think he would be saying about the 2012 race?
Russert: He would be sort of amazed at how the circus stories and sidebar stories have dominated the coverage. I also think when it comes to Mitt Romney and President Obama, he would have an interest because, I would argue, he had a lot to do with them getting where they are now. During a debate for the 2002 Massachusetts Governor's race, my dad asked Romney's opponent, Shannon O'Brien, about how you have to be 18 in Massachusetts to get [parental consent] for a tattoo and 16 to get an abortion. And she said, "Tim, you want to see my tattoo?" She started polling behind Romney after that because she seemed out of touch with a lot of people. In 2008, my dad asked Hillary Clinton about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and that started her downward spiral and allowed Obama to move up. He had a direct impact on both of candidates. And we're still feeling it.