Thank you very much.
More than 150 years after Elijah Lovejoy was martyred in a small town in southern Illinois, not too far from Chicago, the cast of his shadow is as long as ever, the inspiration of his courage as great as ever.
Maury and I are humbled to be even considered in the same tradition, although we assure you that the risks we face in our work are of no comparison to those Lovejoy faced.
Our commitment, however, is similar.
“In the work we have done for the past five or six years now, Maury and I believe that we have given voice to those with no voice-those in Death Rows and prisons in Illinois and across the country.”
Where Lovejoy exposed the absolute falsehood of slavery-the stain it left on a young nation and its ideals-we have worked to inform the debate over capital punishment and the criminal justice system. We have exposed myths in the criminal justice system-that all criminal defendants are served by competent attorneys, that they are brought to trial by only fair-minded police and prosecutors, and that their fates weighed by only unbiased juries and judges. These, we have shown, are myths that many in the criminal justice system have long suspected, but have simply chosen not to acknowledge.
So we dare to feel a kinship-a bond-with Elijah Parish Lovejoy, and we feel strongly tethered to his courageous example.
Thirty years before the Civil War, Lovejoy gave voice to the slaves. He spoke to them. He spoke for them. He said that slavery demeaned our nation-that, as a nation of laws, slavery subverted the law. It robbed the slaves of their voice in a nation where the phrase all men are created equal had come to ring hollow.
In the work we have done for the past five or six years now, Maury and I believe that we have given voice to those with no voice-those in Death Rows and prisons in Illinois and across the country.
They are men and women who have been convicted of some of the worst crimes imaginable-murder, rape, assault, armed robbery-essentially, of inflicting the most horrible pain one human being can inflict on another.
They have been cast out from among us and sentenced to the most severe punishments our society can deliver-death, or life in prison with no hope ever being released back to society.
No one is less popular; no one is more despised.
For many, these punishments are deserved. But not for all. These are the people we strive to serve. They reach out to us in letters and collect phone calls. They even call us at home, though I’m not sure how our home numbers get out. Each week, we get perhaps a dozen letters between us, from prisoners, mostly in Illinois, but from all over the country.
The envelopes almost always are marked with a red prison label-it says something like, “This is from an inmate at Stateville Correctional Facility”-as if it were a second class letter, as if to warn us not to open it.
Because if we do open the letter and read its often inarticulate but passionate plea for help, we might just end up going down a long trail that has grown ever familiar to us and has become, we think, a calling of sorts.
That trail begins with a visit to the prison, an interview in some cramped room with horrible acoustics and terrible climate control-it’s as if the prison officials are trying to boil us out or freeze us out, anything to get rid of us.
Then there is a review of court documents-more often than not hundreds or thousands of pages of court transcripts and police reports and autopsy records and all the other papers that make up a court file and tell the story of how one person committed a terrible cruelty to another and how they ended up in prison.
Then, comes the most challenging, and at times the riskiest, part of our work: taking the investigation out onto the street. That’s when we track down witnesses, friends, family, police-anybody who might shed some light on the crime. It has taken us into almost every prison in Illinois, to the swamps of Florida, the backwoods of Oklahoma, all across Texas, even to the upper east side of Manhattan.
All of this in effort to try to find the truth of what happened 5, 10 or 15 years ago-and sometimes even longer.
I would like to tell you briefly about two such journeys. The first is the story of Aaron Patterson, the son of a Chicago policeman, the leader of a gang he called the Apache Rangers.
We first heard about Aaron Patterson in the mid 1990s. By then, he had been on Illinois’ Death Row for several years. He had been convicted, along with another man, Eric Caine, of the murders of an elderly couple in South Chicago, a particularly hard and hard scrabble portion of the city.
Patterson wrote a letter. He said he was innocent. Yes, he admitted, he had done some bad things in his life. He had shot people and done other things. But he did not stab Vincent and Rafeala Sanchez, the couple he and Caine were convicted of killing.
Patterson’s case was particularly intriguing-he said he had been tortured to confess by a commander named Jon Burge, a claim many young murder suspects in Chicago would come to make.
But there was more. In the room where the police had interrogated him, Patterson had gotten his hands on a paper clip. He had unwound it and etched on a small metal bench a cry for help. In tiny letters, he wrote that he was being beaten, that police were trying to suffocate him with a plastic typewriter cover. And that he was innocent.
Like so many cases we examine, the evidence besides the alleged confession was virtually non-existent. All there was against Patterson was a teen-aged girl’s claim that he told her about the murders.
But during an interview, she admitted that she had falsely implicated Patterson.
While the Patterson case is hanging, there’s always another case. We can’t just work on just one case at a time. We are usually working on several, juggling them, trying to keep the characters in one case separate in our minds from characters in another.
When there is a lull in one case-when we are waiting for documents or temporarily stumped when trying to find somebody-we turn our attention to the other cases. Along the way, some of the cases fall apart. We can’t find what we think we’re going to find, the person is clearly guilty, and we learn quickly that not all inmates have a clear grasp of the facts of their case or of the law.
” We are supported by one of the most powerful newspapers in the country.”
Maury and I have boxes and boxes of letters and files that we build as we look into these cases. On my desk, for example, is a box that represents several years worth of work on the case of Daniel Taylor, a 17-year-old from Chicago who is serving a life prison sentence for a double murder. President Adams mentioned the case.
Daniel sent a letter asking for help, saying that he was in jail when the crime occurred and could not have been guilty. We wondered, how could that be. But sure enough, we have the jail records showing he was locked up at the time the murders occurred. We found other records that supported his innocence claim, and found witnesses who backed up his story.
We followed the Aaron Patterson trail, and we followed the trail of Daniel Taylor, and so many other trails, to give voice to those who have no voice. To help them expose the myths of the criminal justice system. And, if we are very lucky, and it’s rare that we are, to correct an injustice, to restore freedom to someone who has had freedom taken away.
At the same time, we have tried to inform the readers of the Chicago Tribune about how the criminal justice system is supposed to work, and how close or far it gets to the ideal, especially when faced with high-profile, high-pressure crimes that often lead to injustices.
We are lucky. Lovejoy did his work alone. We are supported by one of the most powerful newspapers in the country. More important, we are supported by editors who have taken up this work as their own and, in every instance, have made our work better. One of them is here this evening and I’d like to introduce him-Bob Blau, the editor for projects and our direct supervisor. We are ever indebted to him.
With us, our editors have stood strong against fierce criticism of the work we do, and of the newspaper. They have never backed down. Indeed, they have encouraged us to fulfill a mission that, were he alive, Lovejoy would appreciate-to give voice to the voiceless.