Justice Gone Awry

By Armstrong, Ken; Mills, Steve | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

Justice Gone Awry


Armstrong, Ken, Mills, Steve, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Tribune examines hundreds of Death Row cases to reveal state's faulty lawyers, evidence, system

Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, 12 of the state's Death Row inmates have been executed. During the same time, 13 have been exonerated.

It is a jarring tally, one that has attracted attention both nationally and internationally.

When Anthony Porter was freed from Illinois' Death Row in February 1999 - an innocent man saved by journalism students, not the justice system - he became the state's 10th Death Row inmate to be cleared. Porter once had come within two days of execution, only to win a reprieve because of concerns about his IQ, not his innocence. After Porter's execution was delayed, a private investigator working with Northwestern University journalism students obtained a videotaped confession from the real killer. Porter was freed, and the dramatic circumstances of his case initiated a clamor for reform from state legislators and justices.

The Illinois General Assembly and Illinois Supreme Court established committees to propose improvements and provide explanations for the state's dubious track record of exonerating as many Death Row inmates as it executes. But none of those committees was willing to do the hard work of going beyond the anecdotal evidence to root out and quantify those problems undermining the state's system of capital punishment.

So we decided to do it for them.

Rooting out the problems

The Chicago Tribune conducted an exhaustive investigation into all 285 death penalty cases in Illinois going back to capital punishment's reinstatement. That research helped us isolate particularly compelling examples of justice gone awry while also showing how certain fault lines run through dozens or even scores of Illinois capital cases.

Our research showed that capital punishment in Illinois is a system so riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trial tactics and legal incompetence that justice has been forsaken.

That research took eight months to complete and resulted in a five-part series, "The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois." The series ran Nov. 14-18 and yielded dramatic results, both for individual inmates and for the overall system of capital punishment.

Executions halted

On Jan. 18, Cook County prosecutors dropped charges against Steve Manning, an inmate whose case we investigated in our series' third part, which explored the corrosive effect of using jailhouse-informant testimony to secure convictions. That made Manning the 13th Illinois Death Row inmate to be cleared. Both Manning and his attorney credited the Tribune's investigation with his exoneration.

On Jan. 31, Illinois Gov. George Ryan took the historic step of suspending the death penalty in Illinois, citing the Tribune's investigation and the state's escalating number of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Ryan specifically noted several of the Tribune's findings, including the extraordinary number of Death Row inmates who were represented at trial by attorneys who have been disbarred or suspended, and the pervasive use of jailhouseinformant testimony to put defendants on Death Row.

Of the 38 states with the death penalty, Illinois became the first to declare a moratorium on executions. Ryan's announcement made headlines around the country and world, and it created a ripple effect that continues to expand.

In Illinois, Ryan's decision won sweeping praise that extended across party lines and even included some of the state's most conservative legislators. A Tribune poll conducted one month after the moratorium's imposition showed that two-thirds of Illinois voters supported Ryan's decision to suspend the death penalty.

Nationally, President Clinton described Ryan's decision as courageous and said governors in other death-penalty states should consider following Ryan's example.

Put into context

In reporting on the death penalty in Illinois, our goal was to move beyond the kind of anecdotal reporting that so often defines coverage of criminal justice issues.

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