Lovejoy Recipients Use Press to Free Innocents

 

By Stephen Collins '74
 

Steve Mills and Maurice Possley navigate between different versions of reality.

One world they know is official and on the record, where criminals confess to their crimes, justice is blind but fair, and society is comfortable with punishments that are sometimes harsh in the extreme.

The other reality they discovered is harder to pin down. It lurks in claims of innocence by convicted and often despised murderers and rapists and in alibis already rejected by courts. When it exists, this version of the truth is at the far end of an inverted spyglass, and few have the acuity to sense it, the tools and determination necessary to pursue it or the requisite compassion to seek it.

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Chicago Tribune reporters Maurice Possley, left, and Steve Mills, center, speak with President William D. Adams in Lorimer Chapel before the Lovejoy Convocation in October.
Mills and Possley, reporters for The Chicago Tribune, were honored in October with the 2003 Elijah Parish Lovejoy journalism award for their dogged pursuit of the sometimes-elusive truth. They received Colby's highest honors,the award and honorary doctor of laws degrees,for daring to listen to men whose deaths, according to the state of Illinois, would improve society.

Possley and Mills cover the criminal justice system for the Tribune. As a team they have uncovered evidence so compelling that Illinois has released convicts from death row after being convinced that innocents had been wrongly convicted. When former Illinois Governor George Ryan announced a moratorium on executions, he credited Mills and Possley's work with helping to change his thinking. They proved that the system is fallible, and they showed that reforms and safeguards are well advised if the state is to resume capital punishment.

In their talk in Lorimer Chapel on October 15, Possley and Mills inspired a large audience with stories like that of Aaron Patterson, an inmate convicted of the murder of an elderly couple in South Chicago. Patterson told the reporters that, though he had done some bad things in his life, he had not stabbed Vincent and Rafeala Sanchez,a crime for which he was sentenced to die. He told them he was beaten by police and suffocated with a typewriter cover, tortured to confess to a crime he hadn't committed. Their investigation revealed that there was virtually no evidence in his case and that the forced confession along with testimony from a teenaged girl,testimony she told them was false,were the reasons Patterson was condemned to execution.

They told of Daniel Taylor, a 17-year-old serving a life sentence for a different double murder. Again a forced confession led to his conviction, despite the fact that there was evidence,official Illinois court records,showing Taylor was locked up in police custody when the murders occurred.

"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 to expose the myths of the criminal justice system and, if we are lucky, to correct an injustice, to restore freedom to someone who has had freedom taken away," Mills said.

Possley described another case they worked on in which DNA provided the proof of innocence for four wrongfully convicted men, one a 14-year-old with an IQ of 70 who had signed a paper because he thought by cooperating he would get to go home. "The emergence of DNA, the most phenomenal investigative tool in criminal justice, is providing our country with an incredible learning moment," Possley said. In Illinois alone, 135 convicts have been exonerated and released from prison, 10 percent of them from death row.

"The true value of DNA is what it is telling us about the criminal justice system as a whole," Possley said. "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."

Daniel Taylor remained in prison as the pair received the Lovejoy Award. Though there was no DNA evidence in Taylor's case, "there is no doubt in our minds that he is innocent . . . but authorities so far have refused to agree," Mills said.

Neither was there DNA in the case of Aaron Patterson. But describing the rewards of their work, Mills related the experience of working in the Tribune newsroom late on the night that Patterson was released. After a stop for dinner, before he even went home, Patterson came into the newsroom to shake hands and say, "Thank you for saving my life."

"The power of that is unforgettable," Mills said. "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."

Visit www.colby.edu/lovejoy/ for the complete text of the Lovejoy Award acceptance speeches by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley.