Death Row Reprieve/ Haning On by a Wire | Media | Chicago Reader

Death Row Reprieve/ Haning On by a Wire 

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By Michael Miner

Death Row Reprieve

The true story of Christopher Thomas needed telling, the managing editor of the Daily Herald decided. The youth was not as bad as he'd been pictured.

How bad was that? The Daily Herald had pictured Chris Thomas as a convicted killer on death row awaiting execution by lethal injection.

The profile the Herald published on July 30 to set the record straight hangs proudly from the Thomas family refrigerator. This feature tells the story of a West Chicago boy who spends Sundays delivering socks, underwear, and his mom's chili to the homeless men of lower Wacker Drive. A boy who planned a statewide fund-raiser that brought in more than $30,000 to pay for research into a rare childhood disease.

The Daily Herald feature tells everything there is to tell about 15-year-old Chris--except how he happened to come to the attention of the Herald in the first place.

Make that the second place. Three years ago, when Chris was in middle school, he ran (triumphantly) for the district student council. The Herald carried his picture. Afterward that photograph rested out of sight and out of mind--sort of like a virus--in the Herald's computerized files.

On July 16 it reappeared.

"Waiting to die," said the headline. The Herald was reporting a legal challenge to Illinois' death penalty. In the last four years, a Washington study found, 21 wrongly convicted prisoners were released from the nation's death rows, seven of them in Illinois.

To round out its story, the Herald published the pictures of inmates awaiting execution for murders in Chicago suburbs. Details were offered, such as: "Christopher Thomas, 23, for the 1994 shooting of Rafael Gasgonia, 39, at point-blank range in a Waukegan parking lot."

The invitation to readers was hard to miss: study this rogues' gallery and ask yourself if there's someone here who didn't do it. It was certainly hard not to question the feloniousness of Christopher Thomas, who bore an uncanny resemblance to--well, to a grade-school kid running for student council.

When Chris came down for breakfast that morning, his mother had just got off the phone with the managing editor of the Herald.

Chris studied the morning paper. "When I first saw it," he told me, "I thought it was one of those psychic things where they predict. And they'd predicted these people are going to die in the year 2000." This interpretation didn't make Chris feel any better. But the phone was already ringing.

"The mother of a friend called my mom," he said. "More people called my mom. Then more friends called, and friends I hardly ever talk to called. Then my aunt found out, and she came over."

Chris's friends furnished welcome assurance that his sudden notoriety was a hoot. But a different assessment of the matter had been made inside the Herald. "One of our other editors had already received a call from the family," managing editor John Lampinen told me. "He came up and said, 'We have a pretty serious problem here.'"

Lampinen is an editor supremely sensitive to the ethics of his office. More than once his concern has driven him the extra mile. A year ago, when Richard Jewell's name was leaked as the suspect in the Olympics bombing, the Herald waited a day before publishing Jewell's name. Then Lampinen published the memo that told the staff why he'd waited, while admitting that by suppressing a name everyone knew he wasn't sure whether he'd made the Herald look honorable or silly. He also published some of the comments of his staff. In the wash of course the Herald looked terrific. This spring Lampinen received an ethics-in-journalism award for the way he'd handled the Jewell story.

Now he asked himself how to do right by Chris Thomas.

"I called the family," he said. "I talked to the boy's mother at first, and later in the day talked to the father. They were of course upset, particularly at first. Their reaction was, How could you do something so stupid and horrifying? And basically, we said we'd do whatever we can to correct this. After the inital reaction I think they were very understanding of the situation."

It would be more typical of a newspaper to make its mistake on page one and correct it on page ten. The Herald did the opposite. "As a general rule we run our corrections on page four," Lampinen told me. "But we felt the error was so wrong we wanted to make sure people saw the correction. We wanted to make sure there wasn't anybody in the neighborhood who knows the boy and family who could possibly have a mistaken impression."

Lampinen personally composed the retraction and then read it into the Thomases' answering machine. "So that there is no misunderstanding:" it said, "The Christopher Thomas who is on death row is a killer who went by the alias of Dante Hill. He had numerous scrapes with the law and has been in and out of detention homes and prisons for the past eight years.

"The Christopher Thomas whose picture inadvertently appeared in Wednesday's paper is one of those good, hard-working young people who don't get enough credit for earning good grades and participating in the community. He is a sophomore honors student..."

In his correction Lampinen apologized to Chris, his family, his friends, and his neighbors. He explained that a computer searching the paper's electronic photo files had retrieved a picture of the wrong Christopher Thomas. Not that that was any excuse.

Lampinen told me, "A couple of people looked at it and said, 'Hey, that doesn't look like a mass murderer,' but they ran through the red flags. I've done it a couple of times myself. So we've put in some safeguards." These involve requiring an editor "to swear on a stack of Bibles that that's the picture we want."

But the correction, said Lampinen, "was hardly a reflection of how horrible we felt about the mistake." He decided the Herald had to do more. He assigned a reporter to write a full-blown feature story about young Chris Thomas. And he made the interesting decision not to let this feature story betray by so much as a word the reason it was written.

Editors don't like to publish articles that leave readers scratching their heads, wondering what they're doing in the paper. Even less do they enjoy publishing articles that readers know full well serve some separate agenda. I asked Lampinen about his decision not to let the story on Chris acknowledge the obvious motives behind it.

"It was our feeling we set the record straight with the correction," Lampinen told me. "Our point in doing the article was, 'Here's a teenager who's done a lot of worthwhile things with his life.' We really want people to look at Chris and realize he's accomplished a great many things, and not be confused over whether he had something to do with this guy on death row. There's a general rule of thumb with corrections not to repeat the mistake. We wanted to give attention to what he'd done, not to the mistake."

Even so, the profile of Chris Thomas looked like damage control as much as it did journalism. A more candid article could have put Chris's sense of humor on display, as well as his gallantry. Far from being angry at the Herald, he worried that I'd write something negative about the newspaper. "I don't want anything bad written, because it doesn't have to be," he told me. "I don't want to seem that I am ungrateful for what they have done for me, because they have bent over backwards."

Hanging On by a Wire

An anonymous caller warned me that the City News Bureau was in trouble, that the 107-year-old boot camp for Chicago journalists no longer could count on the dailies to sustain it. Hadn't the Sun-Times and Tribune just sold the PR News Service, which they also jointly owned? The news service had operated out of City News and made enough money to keep the combined operation in the black.

Someone else observed that the Sun-Times is now run by foreign-born managers with no sense of City News traditions, and that the Tribune may be too preoccupied with 21st-century communications systems to care much about a hallowed remnant of the 19th. As long as City News housed the PR News Service, the papers could take money out of the operation. Would they be willing to put money in? The City News faithful feared the worst.

The City News faithful are the journalists around Chicago and the world who broke into the business at Chicago's wire service, which focuses on the hardest of hard news and stresses accuracy far above style. Lots of radio stations rip and read City News copy; the two papers use it as a tip sheet and a backstop.

Joe Leonard, the Tribune's associate editor in charge of budget, technology, and administration, sits on the board that oversees City News. He told me not to worry. "City News did not sell the PR News Service in a vacuum. The PR News Service was not given away. Also the PR wire needed to be sold because it was not competitive with the two major wires in the United States. The smart thing to do when you can't match your competition and you don't want to invest in your PR service to bring your service into the 21st century--you get rid of it. But we are committed to keeping the news part going."

And the Sun-Times? I asked. Does it care?

"The most senior management in their empire and the most senior management in ours guided the board of directors in their decision," Leonard asserted. "You can't lose interest. They [City News] serve a very important function. They cover the courts, the police beats. Call some of the TV stations and ask what they'd do without it."

Early each morning City News distributes a schedule of the day's events that's more precious than gold to assignment editors--especially the ones at TV and radio stations, where no record of anything is kept if it won't fit on a Post-it. Those stations can subscribe to the City News wire for irresistibly low rates. Yet rates for other newspapers have been kept impossibly high. A dozen Chicago papers founded City News; the two survivors have had no interest in cutting in any new competition.

All this is about to change. "We're now in the process of rethinking a lot of things done for years," says Joe Reilly, City News's general manager. "By the end of the year we're going to come up with a plan that will ultimately, if not make us profitable, at least make us nearly make expenses. I think one of the things we'll do is set some rates that will be fairly realistic."

Reilly says he's never even attempted to sell his service to other newspapers. But, fanning interest he knows is there, he expects to be talking soon with the Daily Herald and the Daily Southtown and possibly the suburban Copley papers, which have opened a bureau downtown. It stands to reason that the Sun-Times would want the Southtown to receive City News: both papers are owned by Hollinger. But the Tribune and Daily Herald are going toe-to-toe in the western suburbs; for the Tribune to permit the Herald to buy the City News service a philosophical sea change would be necessary.

"My understanding has always been they wouldn't sell it to us because of the Tribune and Sun-Times," says John Lampinen, the Daily Herald's managing editor. "If they are making it available to us we wouldn't foreclose considering it. I've heard informally that they're interested in approaching us and other papers."

Says Reilly, "It's been around 107 years, and I'm not going to be the person to preside over its death. I'm 58 now. I fully intend to stay here until I'm 65, and I really don't want to pass along a struggling operation."

City News alumni are everywhere, making it if anything more legendary outside Chicago than within it. "A few of our alumni, realizing the PR News Service was the moneymaker, called with suggestions about services we could do, things we could sell," Reilly says.

Anything outlandish?

"How about starting an afternoon newspaper to circulate in the Loop, the train stations? The guy who offered that was just brainstorming. His heart was in the right place." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo manipulation by Victor Tompson.

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