News & Politics

2009’s Washingtonians of the Year: Colbert I. King

A powerful watchdog for DC

Photograph by Matthew Worden

When Washington Post columnist Colby King takes aim, officials take notice. He keeps demanding answers till he gets the truth. “The kind of things I write about,” he says, “you’re not going to get an answer first time around. The first thing you run into is lies.”

Take Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic sentenced to jail for possession of marijuana. “Magbie died at the hands of a jail unprepared to house a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic and a hospital too incompetent to treat one,” King wrote in December 2008. It was his 14th column about Magbie.

The Magbie columns and those he wrote about the death of journalist David Rosenbaum, the murder of teenager Tia Mitchell, the questionable death of DC resident Dawn Rothwell, and missteps in the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services all have something in common, says King: “They tell stories of city officials who have concealed facts, put on false appearances, and dissembled.”

DC police claimed Rothwell had fallen out of a 12-story building by accident. It turned out she’d died after she, two friends, and a DC cop went out to buy PCP and returned to Rothwell’s apartment to party. The Magbie family got an out-of-court settlement, and King says the DC Department of Corrections now has one of the best medical units in the country. Rosenbaum’s family is still holding DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services’ feet to the fire after the truth came out about his needless death. The cop in the Rothwell case went to jail.

King, a native Washingtonian, was an editorial writer for the Post when editor Meg Greenfield suggested he write a column. He didn’t think he was the man for the job. She assured him: “We’ll run it on a Saturday, and if it bombs nobody will know the difference.” King won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

It turns out people do read the paper on Saturday after all.