In April The Chicago Tribune’s Cornelia Grumman won a Pulitzer Prize for her editorial writing on Illinois’ troubled death penalty system. The prize followed more than four years of groundbreaking reporting and writing by Grumman and her Tribune colleagues that exposed major flaws in Illinois’ capital punishment system.
The Tribune writers’ work led former Illinois governor George Ryan to place a moratorium on the death penalty in the state and later to issue a blanket commutation to all Illinois death row inmates. It helped reframe the national debate on the death penalty and provided a concrete example of the impact that courageous journalism can have on public policy.
Here Grumman speaks about the resistance to their work that The Tribune writers faced and the commitment that The Tribune continues to demonstrate in illuminating the flaws in the capital punishment system.
MotherJones.com: When and how did The Chicago Tribune decide to start writing about death penalty issues as a sustained campaign?
Cornelia Grumman: I used to be on the state beat. I was the person who ended up covering death penalty issues – to the extent that we covered it then, which was basically not at all. All over the country you were hard-pressed to see any stories about the death penalty. Because at the time it was really a moral issue, and that had been debated, and that debate had run its course. I think [the decision to revisit the issue] had something to do with DNA technology, but in Illinois it really had to do with the case of Anthony Porter.
Anthony Porter came within 48 hours of being executed when he got a stay to do a mental fitness hearing. In the course of doing the mental fitness hearing, there was a Medill journalism professor, David Protess, and his journalism students working with a private investigator who looked into the case. [The hearing] bought them enough time to find the real killer and get him to confess…
I think once you had irrefutable evidence and a confession of someone that showed we came very close to executing someone who was innocent, that shook everybody up, and I think that’s what caused The Tribune to decide to devote some reporters to the subject.
They spent almost a year looking at every single case on Illinois’ death row. Steve Mills, Maury Possley, and Ken Armstrong were the three reporters who have really been amazing at covering this issue. Their reporting, along with another series that had run before on prosecutorial misconduct, prompted the governor to declare in January of 2000 a moratorium on the death penalty.
MJ: What role do you think journalism has in promoting justice?
CG: I think it has a huge role and I think that has been demonstrated in Illinois with this very issue with the work that the reporters have done. It put this issue on the agenda – not just the state agenda but the national agenda – and said to every state that has a death penalty in this country: you need to look closely at what’s going on with how you administer this, because there are deep flaws in all of them. It just so happens that Illinois may look worse than everyone else but we’re just looking closer at it than the rest of you guys.
Now you do have a lot of other states that are looking very carefully at their own systems and that are finding problems. Obviously on the editorial pages that’s what we’re all about. We see a problem and we try to offer policy solutions. We want to see things righted. I see us as an extension of some of the work that goes on in the newsroom. They expose the problems and then we try to take it a step further and say ‘Here are the remedies, here’s what should be done.’
MJ: What implications do you think the research in Illinois has for the legitimacy of the death penalty in other states in the U.S.?
CG: Well, I think it should give other states pause, including Texas. I think that it should and it has made other states really say: we need to take a very close look at our systems.
MJ: How do you think the investigative and editorial work of The Tribune changed ideas about the death penalty among the people of Illinois and across the nation?
CG: Well you can see it in the polls. When you ask it as an abstraction, a majority of people say ‘Oh yeah, I’m in favor of the death penalty.’ But when you ask more nuanced questions you see that overwhelming support fade and become a little bit more guarded. You have a majority of people who also think our system is flawed and they’re supportive of the moratorium, recognizing that we do have so many flaws that we shouldn’t use it the way it stands now. So I think it’s had a huge impact because if you would have taken that same poll six years ago you would not have had those same results.
MJ: At the end of his term Governor Ryan issued a blanket commutation for all of Illinois’ prisoners on death row. Some people said he did this to take attention away from some of the scandals that had happened during his governorship. What do you think?
CG: I just never bought that. That was the easy cynical thing to say, that he was doing this to distract from the fact that there was a federal investigation going on in his administration. I do think this came from the heart.
MJ: Do you feel that Governor Ryan’s moratorium and then the commutation validated the work of the Tribune reporters?
CG: Yes, I do. First of all they’ve never had a mistake. They’ve never been wrong on any of their cases. They’ve gotten a number of people both out of prison who’ve been facing life sentences and off death row. So, yes, I think it was validated in some sense. It showed the impact that good journalism can have on public policy.
MJ: The Tribune was nominated for Pulitzers for its coverage of the death penalty in both 2000 and 2001. Not until this year, though, did your editorial writing on the subject win a prize. What do you think kept The Tribune from winning in earlier years?
CG: Oh, I have no idea. You’d have to ask the Pulitzer board about that. I don’t know. Maybe part of why I got this award was to acknowledge the impact that Steve, Maury, and Ken have had over all these years. But to say they should have won it before is to insult the other entries.
But the first year, which is when they really thought they would win because the governor had just declared a moratorium, well, prosecutors around the nation were galvanized by this prosecutorial misconduct series.
The prosecutors got together and filed something like a 212-page affidavit, trying to discredit the work that [Tribune reporters] did for the series and point out where they were wrong, or mistaken, and basically lobbying the Pulitzer board. Which I think was just really unfortunate and classless.
Part of it was that prosecutors are not used to getting criticized. They’re used to being heroes, and they see themselves as these noble workhorses who are fighting for justice and getting bad people off the streets and the vast majority of the time that’s true.
But some of them, they’re in it for the wrong reasons. They want to skirt everything as just an error, not as actual malfeasance. I don’t think that should apply to any profession because in every profession there are some people who just make errors, and there are other people who make willful errors.
Whether that had any impact on whether they won or not, I don’t know. I have no idea.
MJ: Were there other quarters from which The Tribune’s work faced resistance?
CG: Well, obviously, law enforcement in the broad sense, so that includes prosecutors and cops, have not been real happy with this and obviously they have their influence. I’m also in charge of political endorsements for The Tribune, and I know directly what their influence is.
Whatever a local cop or the county prosecutor says to a legislator, they take as the gospel truth. Very few of them really can be skeptical, or just be inquisitive and broad-minded, about how does this fit in with the full picture.
But if you step back and think about it, what institution, in the history of institutions, has ever reformed itself? None of them. It has had to be imposed by an outside mandate.
MJ: Did you feel discouraged as you kept advocating for these reforms and saw little change?
CG: Oh absolutely. I felt like I was spitting into a swift wind and getting it thrown right back in my face (laughs). I mean I felt like nobody was reading anything that I wrote. And of course it was an election year and so everyone was acting stupid and crazy, all the politicians, and they just paid no attention. It was really, really frustrating.
MJ: What was it that kept you going in the face of that frustration?
CG: Well because I’ve also had the experience where there has been response to a lot of other editorials that I’ve written. I also know that the pace of reform is very slow and the pace of major reform is molasses, anywhere you go, so we weren’t about to give up on this. The Tribune has made a huge commitment to this issue.
MJ: What are the next steps that you would really like to see?
CG: Well, I think Illinois needs to set up an innocence commission, sort of like modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board. If a plane crashes and the NTSB comes in and they investigate what happened, what went wrong.
Someone gets imprisoned wrongly for 20 years and it turns out they’re innocent and we do nothing. Nothing. No state does anything. I think we need to set up some kind of commission that goes in and finds out what went wrong. And who are those cops that are working on it and who are the prosecutors and who are the defense attorneys and what other cases have they dealt with.
MJ: So what was it like to actually win the Pulitzer?
CG: Oh, surreal. A little humbling. Again, I feel like the real stars at the paper are Steve and Maury. I kind of played a bit part in all of this so I feel a little bit uncomfortable with it. I’m still the same boring person I was before (laughs). But it’s great and if it gives any more traction to what we’ve been writing about in our legislature and in other states then that’s great.