Steve Mills and Maurice Possley
Reporters for The Chicago Tribune
Press release announcing fellows | Honorary Degree Citation | Q&A
Questions and Answers
Question about whether Mills and Possley wish they could have reported on the death penalty earlier
The answer is, I think, yes. When we were doing our research for the death penalty series, one of the things we did was to go back and look at the Tribune's coverage of every one of those cases, 285 cases, and one of the things we found was that, and this was especially true the farther back that you went, in many of those stories you did not see anything about the defense. The coverage of the trial, for instance, was all about the prosecution, very little about the defense. When we began to do interviews there was a great distrust in the Black community, among defense attorneys, among a lot of people. Part of it is that there's a pendulum, and it was a high-crime time and that was how stories were covered. I would like to think that we would never do something like that now, that both sides would be covered equally. A lot of that is also just the vestige of the Tribune's reputation that goes back 50, 60 years, but that is entirely undeserved, for as long as I know.
I think that there's a certain element of what you said that people believečit becomes truer the farther away you get from Chicago. If you look back at some of the investigative work of the Tribune in certain other areas over the last 25 or 30 years, you see them exposing ills in public housing, voting irregularities, government use of funds set aside for minorities. There's a certain, from far away, mystique about the Tribune and how Republican and how far to the right they were that is not exactly accurate and has not been exactly accurate for a long, long time. But I will tell you that I got phone calls after I started doing stories from people in the African-American community that said, "where was the Tribune when these cases were unfolding, when they were going to trial? I'm going to start reading the Tribune from now on." We were clearly viewed, even within the city and certainly within the minority community, from that sort of perspective. Some of it too is just the whole question of the justice system. There hadn't been a lot of that done. It was unplowed ground, really, to do any sort of quantifiable, systemic approach as opposed to case-by-case. I think there were a bunch of cows that sort of got slaughtered in this process.
Question about how to make systemic improvements to the justice system
I could give you a whole list. Start with videotaping of interrogations. Why shouldn't we see what's going on in those rooms? We see Sipowicz do it every week. They can put a camera in that catches the person who's got the candy bar at the Whitehand Pantry, why not do it when we're charging someone with the most series of crimes, where the ultimate punishment is death? Why not have standards before you can walk into a courtroom and defend someone whose life is at stake? Standards that require more than just having written a few wills and doing a few real estate closings before you can defend somebody. That has happened. Why do lineups in a way that people are now acknowledging they have been done incorrectly in the past? Do them sequentially, one person at a time. Let the person who conducts it have no idea which person is the suspect. I could go on down the line. Why not have special litigation funds set aside for death penalty cases so that the overburdened and underfunded public defender's office can have the same access to experts and investigates that prosecutor's officers do when someone's life is at stake?
Question about how Illinois politicians like Governor George Ryan view the work of the Tribune
It depends. At the same time that we're writing about George Ryan and the death penalty, other reporters at the Tribune were writing about George Ryan and the scandal that had engulfed his former office, the Secretary of State's office, and that was threatening to lead to his indictment. I don't know that any politicians necessarily like newspapers, and I don't know that many of them like the Tribune, but that probably means we're doing a good job. The mayor? Oh God. Mayor Daley doesn't care for us, I don't think.
I think we may thud on his doorstep, and I think he reads it, but I don't think that he goes out of his way to invite us to cocktail parties.
Question about moral issues involved with being a reporter and covering the criminal justice system.
That's a question that we traditionally dodge. One of the things that we have worked hard to do is to stay away from the morality issue, in part because it can't be resolved. It's been well trod and both sides are at loggerhead still. One of the things that we hope to do with the work we're doing is to establish statistically whether systems were working, essentially whether government systems were effective, accurate and fair. In some ways it's meant perhaps a slightly clinical or cold approach, but in the long run I think that's paid off. It's paid dividends in that we've been able to stay away from the moral debate, which is a quagmire, and focus on the new issue, and perhaps the better issue to talk about in a way. We write about all the mistakes. It's hard to have--your point of view is skewed because of that.
My feeling is that, in response to your question, if we were writing about the moral issue it would be relevant. I don't feel that I have to have a position one way or another to be able to write about whether a system is accurate or whether a system is having correct results or whether there are flaws in the system. But if I were to write an editorial or to write some series of articles about the morality of it, should we or should we not kill them, then I think it's relevant. I'm not trying to dodge the issue. Certainly it's a question that we're posed with, because it's so close to the issue. For a lot of people it is a moral issue. Larry Marshall, who's in the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, put it this way in terms of the reliability of the system. Since 1975, since we brought the death penalty back in this country after a short hiatus, we killed about 900. We've released a little over a hundred from death row. If you went into a restaurant and you ordered a sandwich and there was a sign there that said one out of ten sandwiches was going to have cockroaches in it, how many would you eat? A guy like Bill Conkle, who prosecuted John Wayne Gacy, one of the most terrible serial killers in our nation's history, says, if you're going to be honest about it, it's a human system, and humans make mistakes, and if we're going to kill people as a punishment then we're bound to kill some innocents along the way and that just comes with the territory.
One of the interesting things about working at the Tribune is that the editorial page, the editorial board, has continued to support capital punishment. You might say, with all this work that you've done surely they would have thrown that off a long time ago. But they haven't. They support it and in a lot of ways I think that's a good thing. It shows that there's no greater conspiracy between the news pages and the editorial page and it shows that both sides work on separate roads. They've advocated for a great deal of reform, but they continue to support it. I think that's a healthy thing in a way.
Question about whether any reforms have resulted from reporting on the death penalty.
Yes. Unqualified yes. In Illinois there have been a number of reforms. Interrogations are going to be videotaped. You'll be able to see that entire process. There will be hearings to determine the reliability of a jailhouse snitch, one of the most pernicious kinds of evidence. There are standards for defense attorneys. It is changing and I think that a lot of those reforms have been based on the work that we've done. They've jumped from the problems that we've highlighted. Things are changing and I think that attitudes are changing as well. It's not unusual now to hear about a prosecutor who has had a change of heart and said, I used to support the death penalty; I don't any longer. And ordinary readers the same way. I think it's made people think it's open to a national discussion and I think that's been healthy.
Is the system reliable? It takes it out of the arena of should we should kill them or not, but should we trust the system. That's a question that people can grasp and certainly legislators can grasp in a different sort of way, because who wants to stand up there and say, I think we should kill those innocent ones. Why change the system? In Illinois we released 13 and killed 12 since 1977. That's a pretty spotty record if you ask me. It's changed the level of debate in a way that people who would shy away from it are able to embrace it or at least address it. That someone would introduce a proposal in the Texas legislature for a moratorium-now you know that's not going anywhere-but the fact that someone would actually do it without fear of being stoned or put back in the stone age by the electorate tells you something. We've had discussions around the country. In Maryland there was a moratorium for a period of time, I believe, to study the system. It became a question, and it really prompted a lot of newspapers around the country to do the same thing, of looking at our record in our states, whether we've got 5 people on death row or we've got 3000 on death row. How can we trust the system? That's a way that legislators are willing to address it without fear that they'll be voted out of office because they're soft on crime. Because it always comes down to "you're coddling the criminals." You're protecting people's rights. Thank you very much.