In December of 1999, at the end of a year in which the Tribune had published a series that exposed misconduct by prosecutors, defense lawyers and police as well as failings of the death penalty, one of our reporters, Dick Longworth-a distinguished journalist who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this past spring, he writes about foreign affairs-was driving home from a trip to the grocery store on a Saturday morning.
As he drove past a high-rise apartment building, he saw smoke pouring from an upper floor. This is a guy who hasn’t done police beat kind of stuff for a long time, but like the horse in the old fire station, you hear the alarm and you charge out the door. You do what reporters do. He pulled over in front of the building to investigate.
It just so happened that police and fire personnel were arriving at about the same time. As he began to get out of his car, a police officer stepped up to the driver’s side window and ordered him to leave-and it was not a polite, “please leave, sir.” I can guarantee you that.
Longworth identified himself as a Tribune reporter and began to dig for his Chicago police press credential that allows reporters to cross police lines. Before he could get it out, though, the officer, who had now been joined by a couple more, yanked open the car door and reached in to grab the car keys, which were dangling from the ignition. In short order, this is what happened.
As the officer reached for the keys, Longworth instinctively goes for the keys at the same time and their hands intersected. That, he would soon find out, became battery charge number one. The officer then grabbed Longworth and began to pull him from the car. That became charge number two, resisting arrest. As the officer yanked him out of the seat, the car door swung open rather abruptly and smacked into another officer who was walking up to the car, who happened to be a female police officer. That became charge number three, aggravated battery to a police officer.
Dick was hauled off to a police station where, wouldn’t you know, it was too late to make it to court on Saturday, so he had to spend the night in the lockup before being taken to court on Sunday, where, again, wouldn’t you know, his case didn’t get called until late in the afternoon. He was finally released about 6 o’clock after about 18 hours in jail.
On Monday, he came over to my desk and had one question, “What’s with Chicago police officers?”
“teve and I can’t stand here and say that anything we have come across in our reporting even comes close to what Elijah Parish Lovejoy faced.”
I informed him that the Tribune was not the most liked entity by police right now in Chicago, particularly because of what we had been writing about their conduct. And I told him how, during one of our frequent conversations with the chief press spokesman for the police department, we had been “advised” that it was perhaps not a good idea to drive in the city of Chicago. When the spokesman told me that, I suggested that in the wake of the Abner Louima case in New York-where officers had arrested Louima and then sodomized him with a plunger-that his words sounded more like a threat. “No,” he assured me, “this was just some advice.”
Steve and I can’t stand here and say that anything we have come across in our reporting even comes close to what Elijah Parish Lovejoy faced. But nonetheless advice such as that is somewhat daunting when you hear it.
More importantly, it is reflective of an attitude. How dare you question us? How dare you suggest that our methods are not designed to get to the truth? How dare you investigate us? We are the police. We are the prosecutors. How dare you question the criminal justice system?
Make no mistake about it-we believe the American system of justice is the greatest in the world. But that does not mean it is without warts, that it cannot be scrutinized and that its participants cannot be called to account for their actions.
As Steve said, our reporting has, among other things, attempted to give a voice to the voiceless. Nowhere was the importance of that more apparent that in the case of four teenagers who were convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of Lori Roscetti, a medical student in Chicago.
Lori was last seen alive in 1986 when, after spending a Friday evening studying for exams, she left for her apartment, stopping only to drop a fellow student off at his dorm.
She never made it home. Her body was found within hours, lying outside her car on a railroad embankment near a Chicago public housing complex. It was a horrible crime. I won’t recite the details. But it was the sort of crime that stunned Chicagoans, had them locking their car doors, staying off the streets at night.
The case went unsolved for several months until police announced they had charged four youths, teenagers, and that two of them had confessed. One of them pleaded guilty in return for a 12-year prison sentence and agreed to testify against the others. The other three were tried separately and all were convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
The sentencing judge said he would have given them the death penalty, but they were too young to qualify.
In prison, one of these four men, Larry Ollins-they were still kids-managed to gather together the transcripts of the three trials and he studied them. Keep in mind that these kids were all under 18-one was 14 at the time. And Ollins discovered that a crime lab analyst had given conflicting testimony in the three trials. So Ollins wrote a letter, contending he was innocent. As it turned out, this crime lab analyst had been the key witness in a couple of other cases in Chicago where convicted defendants were released after DNA tests showed they were in fact innocent. A forensic expert examined the transcripts and concluded that the crime lab analyst had committed scientific fraud. That was his conclusion.
In the meantime, Steve and I tracked down Marcellius Bradford, the defendant who had taken the deal for 12 years in exchange for his testimony for the prosecution. And guess what he said?
“I lied. I confessed because the cops hit me, because they told me I was going away for life. And, yes, those were my friends, but once you get in that room with the cops, it’s every man for himself. I admit it,” he said, “I am a weak person. I will skateboard into hell for this.”
We had a pretty significant interview, but we still didn’t have enough to print a story.
We went inside Illinois prisons to interview the other three defendants-now grown men. It was 1987 when they were arrested. One of them was Larry’s cousin, Calvin, who was 14 at the time of the crime and had an IQ of 70. Calvin had never been arrested before this case, which was notable, since he lived in Cabrini Green, one of Chicago’s toughest public housing projects.
We sat in an interview room at the Joliet prison and asked him what happened. He told us he thought that if he signed the statement the police gave him, they were going to let him go home. Now, I don’t think police put it that way-sign this and you go home-but that is clearly the message that is communicated. You’re just a witness right now. Just sign this. You’re helping us out. And people do it. Except they don’t go home.
So, we are sitting across from Calvin. He has been in prison for 14 years. He’s now 28 years old. Maybe he did the crime. Maybe he didn’t. We were there to get a sense of him.
One of the questions I like to ask when I interview inmates is: “Who comes to see you?” It is a non-threatening question, it gives us some sense of their support system and it can provide names and phone numbers of people who might have valuable information or provide new leads.
I asked Calvin, “Who comes to see you?”
“Nobody,” he said.
“Do you have family?” I asked.
“Yeah, I got a momma, brothers, sisters, cousins.”
“What about them?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “They came to see me at first, and then they stopped, except for my momma. And then she stopped and she wrote for a while and then she stopped that too.”
“How do you handle that?” I asked.
Remember, this kid went into the prison system at 14-he was convicted as an adult and sentenced to life. “Well, Mr. Possley,” he said, “I have a really good job here in the mattress factory and once a month I send a check to a friend of mine who puts it in a bank account for me.”
“Calvin,” I said, “How do you know that money is even there? You are serving life without parole. The state wants you to die in here. What are you saving it for?”
And he looked at me and he said, “Because, Mr. Possley, one day, God will get me out.”
I have to tell you, when Steve and I got outside of that prison, standing in the parking lot, I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. What we both knew, though, was that we believed Calvin was innocent and that we were going to work as hard as we could to prove it. You’ve got to be kind of obsessed to do some of this stuff and at that point we became obsessed.
“You’ve got to be kind of obsessed to do some of this stuff and at that point we became obsessed.”
We tracked down every non-police prosecution witness in that case. We went to Texas and Georgia and Missouri. We went to the top floor of a housing project where one of the witnesses was squatting in a condemned apartment. Every last one of these men said they had lied. One because he wanted part of the reward. Another because he said he was promised a break on a burglary case. Another because he said the cops told him they would put it on him unless he helped them.
A year later, Steve and I experienced one of the most extraordinary experiences in our-I want to say career but it’s really lives. We stood in that same prison parking lot and watched Calvin walk out a free man. DNA tests had cleared not only him, but also the other three defendants-Larry Ollins, Marcellius Bradford, and Omar Saunders. Within two months, the DNA that freed them had been linked to two other men who took detectives to the crime scene and re-enacted it on videotape./
You know what? Every penny of Calvin Ollin’s money was in that bank account. He walked out with more than $2,000. I know people at the Tribune that don’t have that much in their bank account. That account is a lot bigger now-earlier this year, the city of Chicago agreed to pay him $1.5 million to settle a wrongful conviction lawsuit.
These are the people that really don’t have a voice. Last Sunday I turned the TV on looking for the Cubs game and I was surfing and I came across Shawshank Redemption, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with. One of the main characters is Andy Dufresne, who’s in prison for murder, serving two life terms for a murder he didn’t commit. Morgan Freeman is the hardened veteran inside the prison. They’re talking about the word “hope” and Morgan Freeman says, “hope is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane behind these walls.” And Andy Dufresne says, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and good things never die.” In addition to providing a voice I think one of the things we do is provide hope for people who don’t have that voice. These are the people comedian Richard Pryor was talking about when he said justice really meant “Just Us.” These are people who’ve been locked up-for many the key has literally been thrown away-and, for the most part, forgotten.
These are people like Aaron Patterson. And Daniel Taylor. These are men whose cases Steve and I have spent literally hundreds of hours investigating and writing about. Unfortunately, there was no evidence in Aaron’s or Daniel’s case that could be tested by DNA and provide the exactitude that our justice system demands before admitting a mistake was made.
“They’re talking about the word “hope” and Morgan Freeman says, “hope is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane behind these walls.” And Andy Dufresne says, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and good things never die.””
The emergence of DNA, the most phenomenal investigative tool in criminal justice, is providing our country with an incredible learning moment. Since the first DNA exoneration in Illinois more than 13 years ago, more than 135 defendants have been exonerated and released from prison through the miracle of DNA. About a dozen of them were on Death Row. Surely, without DNA, they would be dead today. And for every one of these exonerations, the other side of the coin needs to be mentioned-for every wrongful conviction, the real perpetrator got away. Many of them, we know, committed other crimes.
But that’s not the only amazing aspect of DNA. No, the true value of DNA is what it is telling us about the criminal justice system as a whole. DNA has proven positively-with an exactitude heretofore unknown in criminal justice-that eyewitnesses make mistakes or are steered by police to pick out the wrong assailants, that jailhouse snitches lie, that laboratory scientists are negligent or commit fraud, that police lie, and that men and women do confess to crimes they did not commit.
The Roscetti case-where police said Calvin Ollins, a 14 year old, and Marcellius Bradford had confessed-and the case against Daniel Taylor prompted our examination of 10 years worth of homicide cases in Chicago-more than 10,000 of them. We picked out all the cases where someone was said to have confessed. And we found 250 cases where there was a confession and one of two things happened-the charges were dropped or the defendants were acquitted.
Logic and common sense tells you that one of two things happened in those cases-either an innocent person was charged or a guilty person went free. Two hundred fifty cases may not sound like many. Put it this way, it happened once every two weeks for 10 years.
These are findings that are bolstered by what DNA tells us and at the same time, go farther than what DNA can do in individual cases.
Earlier this year, in a pretty remarkable moment, Illinois’s new governor, Rod Blagojevich, signed a bill requiring videotaping of interrogations. We are just the third state, after Alaska and Minnesota, to require it.
Before the emergence of DNA, the threshold for proving a case of wrongful conviction was extremely high. Cases were rare, but they did occur. In 1932, Yale University Press published a book titled Convicting the Innocent that was written by Edwin Borchard, one of its law school professors. Borchard cited 65 cases where convictions were set aside and the defendants were found to be innocent. He reported that innocence was established in a number of ways-in some cases, the murder victim turned up alive; in 13 cases, no crime was committed at all. There were cases of mistaken identification, perjured testimony from jailhouse informants and police, prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense work and coerced confessions.
It is interesting to note, though, that Borchard’s point was that he was hoping it would prompt states to adopt compensation schemes for people who got wrongfully convicted. You spend 20 years locked up for a crime you didn’t you, maybe that 20 years of whatever productivity you may have had, maybe we should compensate you for that. In the end, Borchard considered these cases anomalies.
And historically, that’s how we, as a society, have viewed them, little cases that were blips on the radar.
Our work and the work of many other newspapers who have followed suit to examine criminal justice in their states and cities is providing a window into the engine room of the justice system. And what do we see? Well, we see that these cases are not anomalies, they are not emblematic of an occasional misfire of a spark plug. No, it tells us that we need an overhaul.
Well, you say…125 DNA exonerations, that is not so many cases. The problem isn’t that bad, is it? The truth is that DNA is involved in only a small percentage of cases-a gracious estimate is not more than 10 percent of all cases and it’s probably less.
“Borchard cited 65 cases where convictions were set aside and the defendants were found to be innocent. He reported that innocence was established in a number of ways-in some cases, the murder victim turned up alive; in 13 cases, no crime was committed at all.”
Two months ago, Michael Evans and Paul Terry appeared in court in Chicago and walked out free men. Prosecutors dropped the charges against them after DNA tests failed to link them to the murder they were convicted of committing. Steve and I had re-investigated the case and found strong evidence of their innocence. But our evidence alone would not have been enough to convince prosecutors that a mistake had been made.
It took DNA to do that. And even then, the prosecution waited months and required duplicate sets of DNA tests before they made their decision. Evans and Terry had been convicted as 17-year-olds in 1977 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. They did not commit the crime and they served more than 25 years in prison.
Evans has taken it remarkably well, saying he has no grudge, he’s just happy to be free. He’s looking for a job as a maintenance guy because one of the things he got good at in prison was polishing floors. We really don’t know much of what Paul Terry is thinking. He had a complete mental breakdown in prison-as Michael Evans told me-“Paul took it kind of hard when we got sentenced to 400 years in prison.” This is a kid who was arrested as he was ironing his blue jeans to go to his first job interview for a job at Sears the next day. He never came home until just a couple months ago. Though he is free, Terry barely speaks and likely will need assisted care for the rest of his life.
There is a huge reluctance by police and prosecutors to admit a mistake has been made-whether intentional or not. A district attorney in Jefferson County, Alabama, told me earlier this year when I asked him about an exoneration of two brothers who had been convicted of a rape: “These sons of bitches are guilty as sin. There’s no question in my mind. I just can’t prove it.”
The question is: Do we assume that these problems only occur in cases that are later unraveled by DNA?
The answer is pretty obvious. Absolutely not. It’s systemic. That’s what our series showed-that these flaws occur in all kinds of cases. Not just death penalty cases, although certainly that’s the level where the state wants to kill you at the end. Our most serious form of justice was found to be the least credible.
Proof of innocence in most cases just can’t be established with the same certainty that DNA provides. That’s why our series were designed to examine the system as a whole-how it works, whether it works. And we found that the fissures that have allowed these wrongful convictions to occur are systemic. Without addressing the moral issue, for example, of whether state-sponsored killing should be abolished or kept, we were able to frame the question in a way that made it relevant to everyone-can we trust this system to convict the right people, particularly when the end result is that we’re going to kill them? Voters and legislators have to realize that tinkering with the system is not being soft on criminals. This is not a partisan issue. This is about preventing not only wrongful convictions, but about preventing retrials and protracted legal battles that consume time and resources that could be put to other use. Add to that the tens of millions of dollars that are being paid in judgments and settlements to the wrongfully convicted. The players in the criminal justice system-police and prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers-must step forward and admit that mistakes have been made and ethical lines have been crossed. They must acknowledge their responsibility to seek justice, to seek the truth.
We have spoken very little of the rewards of our work. They are many. We work with tremendous reporters and editors at a newspaper committed to the highest ideals of journalism-ideals that Lovejoy held dear. We enjoy enormous support from our families, our colleagues and our editors.
And every once in a while, as Maury said, we get to stand and watch and take notes, of course, as someone we wrote about is acknowledged to be innocent and their freedom is restored.
There are frustrations as well. As we are here tonight, Daniel Taylor is still in prison in Illinois. There is no doubt in our minds that he is innocent. As we have said, there is no DNA in his case. We have found new evidence pointing to his innocence. We have found witnesses never before interviewed by police. They have named the real killer. A man convicted in the case has told us he was involved, that Daniel was not, and that the man our witness named was in fact the killer.
But authorities so far have refused to agree.
The box with the hundreds of papers that makes up the case of Daniel Taylor sits next to my desk. I see it every day as I walk in and out of my cubicle. I keep it there to remind both of us that we can come and go as we please. That we have great jobs and great families. Most importantly, that box reminds us that we have more work to do.
One night in January, Maury and I were working on deadline. It was late–nine, ten o’clock I think. That day, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois had pardoned four Death Row inmates. Ryan was so convinced that those inmates were innocent that he ordered them immediately released. The following day the governor would do something even more stunning-he would commute the sentences of everyone on Death Row-164 inmates-to life in prison.
But that night we were working on the story of the four pardoned inmates-one of whom was Aaron Patterson. It was one of the biggest news stories of the year. There was little that could get in the way of getting this story to bed. But then, into the newsroom strode a man we had never seen in person. We had talked to him on the phone dozens of times-in fact, he had taken to calling my home on Sunday mornings. He was hunched over and had a deer-in-the-headlights look-in part, because photographers hovered around him.
“Aaron, I think, overstated the case. But still the power of that moment is unforgettable. Aaron Patterson was supposed to die by a lethal injection. And here he was, holding a Starbucks coffee, no less, and standing in our newsroom, getting in the way of deadline, and we had editors on our backs.”
But mostly because he was a man so used to being in a cell, so unfamiliar with walking free, that he carried himself slightly hesitantly, as if it could be snatched right back at any moment and locked up again.
The man was Aaron Patterson and he was free. After being released from Pontiac prison, he stopped for dinner with his lawyers and then came straight to the Tribune. He didn’t bother with a phone call or a letter. That speaks a little bit to Aaron and his very strong personality. A man who had not drawn a free breath in 15 years decided that in the first hours off Death Row, he wanted to come into the newsroom and shake our hands. “Thank you,” he said, “for saving my life.”
Aaron, I think, overstated the case. But still the power of that moment is unforgettable. Aaron Patterson was supposed to die by a lethal injection. And here he was, holding a Starbucks coffee, no less, and standing in our newsroom, getting in the way of deadline, and we had editors on our backs.
We had played a role in his release. We had helped to give him voice.
Thank you very much.