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It is nothing short of a myth “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 are weighed by only unbiased juries and judges,” Steve Mills told a crowd at Colby College on Wednesday as he and Maurice Possley, both reporters for the Chicago Tribune, received the 2003 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for journalism.
Mills and Possley were honored for their reporting, which led to pardons for wrongly accused death row inmates and to a blanket commutation of death sentences in Illinois. The Lovejoy award for courage in pursuit of the truth was presented at the 51st Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation October 15 at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “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. We have exposed myths in the criminal justice system,” said Mills, during the pair’s speech in Lorimer Chapel.
“Our series were designed to examine the system as a whole–how it works, whether it works,” said Possley. “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 punishment is death?”
Reading the award citation for Mills and Possley, Colby President William D. Adams said, “as crusaders for justice and as advocates for voiceless victims of an imperfect judicial system, you have demonstrated the power of the press to right wrongs and the obligation of journalists to use that power to influence the conscience of a fallible society. With your extraordinary commitment to exhuming the truth, passion for rooting out injustice, and fastidious attention to the details of your craft, you have demonstrated how dogged, conscientious reporting can make a difference–even the difference between life and death.”
In his remarks, Possley said, “Since the first DNA exoneration in Illinois more than 13 years ago, more than 135 defendants have been exonerated and released from prison. … 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. … 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.”
Possley has been a reporter for 31 years, the last 20 of them at the Tribune. His focus has been the criminal justice system, and he has written about prosecutorial misconduct, false and coerced confessions, the death penalty and wrongful convictions. Mills has worked at the Tribune since 1994, and for the past five years he has focused on the death penalty, miscarriages of justice and other problems in the criminal justice system. Together they have worked on investigative series including “Executions in America” and “Cops and Confessions.”
Colby established the Lovejoy Award in 1952 for an editor, reporter or publisher who has contributed to the nation’s journalistic achievement. Lovejoy was a Colby graduate who became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press when he was killed November 7, 1837, defending his abolitionist newspaper from a pro-slavery mob. For more information on the award visit www.colby.edu/lovejoy.