Magazine article The Quill

Public Service-Newspaper/wire Service

Magazine article The Quill

Public Service-Newspaper/wire Service

Article excerpt

The state of Illinois was sentencing innocent people to death, and more Death Row inmates were exonerated than executed since the state reinstituted the punishment in 1977.

Legal affairs writer Ken Armstrong and police beat writer Steve Mills, of the Chicago Tribune, embarked on an exhaustive and unprecedented investigation of all 285 deathpenalty cases in Illinois.

"With precision and determination, Armstrong and Mills zeroed in on the problems undermining capital punishment in Illinois," wrote Ann Marie Lipinski, managing editor of the Tribune, in her nomination letter. "They found a system so riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trial tactics and legal incompetence that justice and fairness had been forsaken. They also performed a rare public service: They helped get an innocent man off of Death Row."

Armstrong and Mills centered their piece on an expolice officer who was slated for execution after a jailhouse informant testified that the man had made incriminating statements to him. The informant was wired, but no admissions were recorded. The informant blamed two momentary glitches in the recording as the key moments of the ex-cop's confession.

Armstrong and Mills uncovered a striking series of facts that provided evidence of the system's shortcomings: at least 33 times, a defendant sentenced to die was represented at trial by an attorney who has been disbarred or suspended; at least 35 times, a defendant sent to Death Row was black and the jury that determined guilt or sentence was all white; 10 men currently on Death Row were put there by detectives working in a Chicago stationhouse where suspects were routinely tortured; and errors by judges, ineptitude by defense attorneys and prosecutorial misconduct have been so widespread in Illinois death-penalty cases that a new trial or sentencing hearing has been ordered in 49 percent of those that have completed at least one round of appeals. …

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