Truth, Justice, and Journalism

How I helped free an innocent man from Death Row -- and learned how to define the line between reporting and advocacy

By Jennifer Merritt

It was an honest question: "Have you been living in a cave for the last 10 years or something?" The waitress had half-jokingly directed the question to the well-dressed man at the head of our table after he had responded to the offer of espresso or cappuccino with "What's a cappuccino? What's espresso?"

No, Aaron Patterson hadn't been living in a cave. But for 17 years -- until noon on January 10, 2003 -- he lived in a seven-foot by eight-foot cell on Illinois' Death Row. He was one of four men pardoned by Governor George Ryan in his last days in office. Stacks of evidence -- much of it collected by former journalism students, including myself -- pointed to Patterson's innocence. Now, five years after we started digging into his case for a journalism class project, four of my former classmates and I -- along with two producers from CNN -- were sitting at a fancy pizza joint with a man freed from Death Row and exonerated of all charges.

These days, the death penalty and wrongful imprisonment are a topical subject for pundits and a staple of TV and radio talk shows. Perhaps only war with Iraq and abortion stir more heated debate. But for me and my former classmates, the subject of wrongful convictions has been a significant part of our lives for half a decade.

STARTING SKEPTICALLY.

  Five years ago, we were eager students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. We waited for the chance to take the Investigative Journalism class, having been inspired by stories of students' helping to free wrongly convicted men. Our mission: to investigate, report, and dig deep on the case of Patterson and Eric Caine, his co-defendant. (Caine is serving life in prison. We're still working on the case, hopeful our investigation will lead to his being freed by the courts.)

Like any good journalists, we were skeptical. As a firm believer in the justice system, I was more dubious than the others. Then one day on a visit to a prison, I asked an assistant warden how many men in the prison he believed might be innocent. His answer knocked me over: "If they came from Cook County, maybe half of them." The statistics are chilling: An error rate of 60% in death-penalty cases in Illinois. In the 7 or 8 years that 13 men were freed -- mostly through the investigative work of journalism students and their professor --12 were executed. Now, after four men were released in early January, 17 have been freed.

For all of us, working on this case marked a moment of clarity in our young careers. Most of us saw journalism as a sort of calling, a way to make a difference. But we were confronted with something most professional journalists don't ever face: the chance to save a life.

STICKING WITH IT.

  What we found over the next six months made it clear that Patterson and Caine had been convicted of murders they did not commit. The two had been coerced into confessing to the brutal stabbing of an elderly Hispanic couple. Both defendants come from tough street backgrounds -- each had a history of gang involvement -- but that didn't make them murderers. Nothing pointed to their being guilty: The witnesses' stories just didn't jibe with the police reports. The fingerprints found at the scene didn't belong to them.

After six months, we left our work to the next class of students. Less than two years later, four of the eight of us who worked on the case -- now all working journalists -- regrouped to investigate, unable to shake the sense that we had to see the story through. We believed that innocent men were on Death Row. At some point, our work became personal, and during the five years since the case began, I often wondered if we had crossed the line between journalist and advocate.

I don't think the line is as clear as many people make it out to be. If journalism is a public trust, how can we draw this line in such a way that protecting someone's life through good journalism crosses it? As a journalist, if you see a wrong and you have the ability to report and investigate it, you also have a responsibility.

SHOW THE TRUTH.

  I believed our reporting showed that a corrupt system convicted at least one innocent man. That belief kept me working, but it never led me to state an opinion about the death penalty or to attend a rally. I wanted our work to speak for itself, to show the truth rather than have us declare it.

Journalists don't just report the news and analyze the consequences. We find the news, by never letting up on politicians and businesspeople, companies, and institutions. We inform the public of what's going on under their noses and behind their backs. Sometimes a scandal breaks open, a failure is exposed, or an Aaron Patterson comes along.

We visited dank and nasty prisons interviewing witnesses and potential suspects, we put ourselves in danger in an area known for near-daily gunfights and rampant violence. We sat with drugged-up neighborhood folks in roach-infested apartments. We confronted public officials about missing evidence. We waded through boxloads of reports and public records, and two of the group traveled to Alabama to record a key recantation by a witness who had been threatened by police.

SNAPPY CIVVIES.

  Yes, it's rare for a journalist to truly save a life through dogged investigation. But a bunch of twentysomething wanna-bes can have an impact. I believed it five years ago, even as I heard Patterson's despair and anger in his phone calls from Death Row. And I believe it even more now.

Readers might wonder why someone would go into journalism. The public's trust in reporters varies, the pay isn't so great, and the pressure can be overwhelming. I signed up because I felt I could help people see things they would otherwise miss and understand things they might otherwise not be able to digest. Most of the time, making a difference isn't so obvious. This time, it was.

And now, here we were, sitting at dinner with Patterson, eating a shrimp-and-pesto pizza. His voice, minus fear and desperation, has a different timbre. Instead of his drab prison uniform, he was sporting a smart grayish-brown suit, a brown sweater, and a hat in chocolate velvet. Only his query about cappuccino and espresso made him stand out.

SWEET COFFEE.

  Less than 12 hours after Patterson was freed from Death Row, I called him at his new home, his mom's spacious three-bedroom apartment. I got the best reward a journalist can ever hope to receive when he told me, "Thank you for saving my life. It was the four of you who never stopped and never gave up on me. It was you who saved my life." Now, Patterson's mission is to help others who have been wrongfully convicted. He even got a job with the Innocence Project at Northwestern.

Watching Patterson switch from his regular coffee -- a staple of his prison days -- and enjoy an espresso, followed by a frothy cappuccino, well, that was just icing on the cake. Who needs a Pulitzer prize?

Merritt now covers education and business schools for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell