Case Study: the <i>Chicago Tribune</i> Tests a Death Penalty Premise

By Steve Mills
Chicago Tribune

In early 1999, Anthony Porter walked off of Illinois' Death Row, having come within 50 hours of his execution. He'd been asked to order a last meal. He'd been fitted for his burial suit. His family had been asked to make arrangements to claim his body after his execution. Officials in Illinois responded by saying that Porter's brush with lethal injection showed that the criminal justice system worked. Never mind that the evidence that ultimately led to his freedom emerged from an investigation done by journalism students at Northwestern University.

At the Tribune, we sought to test the premise that the system worked. We also tried to inform a growing debate over capital punishment as more and more prisoners on death rows across the nation were exonerated and set free. We did this by examining every death sentence in Illinois -- some 285 cases -- and doing in-depth investigations of several of them. We pulled at the threads that ran through the cases that appeared emblematic of the system's troubles: bad lawyers, jailhouse snitches, flawed forensic science. The work resulted in a series of stories that changed how Illinois' criminal justice system was viewed, and changed how reporters cover the courts -- bringing a new skepticism to how the justice system operates.

Some two months after the publication of the November 1999 series, "The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois," then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions. Ryan cited the Tribune's work. The Illinois Supreme Court changed key court rules for handling capital punishment cases, and the state legislature also has made reforms. Over the past six years, the Tribune has examined almost every facet of the criminal justice system, doing groundbreaking work on false confessions, the execution of innocent inmates, life after exoneration and, most recently, forensic science.

Along the way, the Tribune has investigated individual cases. That work has contributed to the release from prison of close to a dozen inmates -- young men who might otherwise have never obtained their freedom. Two years ago, as Ryan left the governor's office, he commuted the sentences of 167 Death Row inmates, again crediting the Tribune for its work and for influencing how he came to view the criminal justice system. Ryan also pardoned four men based on their innocence.

Just hours after he was released from Death Row, one of the men, Aaron Patterson, came to the Tribune newsroom -- a newsroom on deadline with one of the biggest stories of the year. It was, Patterson said, one of his first stops after being granted his freedom. But, he said, it was necessary. He had to thank the newspaper for all its work.

The inmates whom we have helped to win their freedom have found life outside prison a challenge. Some have met that challenge well -- Calvin Ollins, once sentenced to life in prison for rape and murder, has gone to college. Madison Hobley, sentenced to death for setting a fire that killed seven people, including his wife and young son, has married and moved out of state. He speaks about the death penalty and is trying to put his life back together. Other former inmates have not fared so well -- struggling to understand a world that has changed dramatically from when they last were in it as free men. Aaron Patterson, the Death Row inmate who came to the Tribune to thank the newspaper, became an outspoken community activist, but then was arrested on federal drug charges. He has yet to go to trial. And Leroy Orange, who also was on Death Row, was arrested on local drug charges and pleaded guilty. He is back in prison.

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed for 10 years.


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