The Tribune Takes Its Chances With a Jury; Good Enough for the Bunny Guy | Media | Chicago Reader

The Tribune Takes Its Chances With a Jury; Good Enough for the Bunny Guy 

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The Tribune Takes Its Chances With a Jury

The Tribune is being sued by a former Du Page County prosecutor who accuses it of maliciously defaming him. The Tribune admits to making a mistake. But to Thomas Knight, now in private practice, it was no simple mistake. The Tribune had been attacking him for years.

The Tribune editorial page meant Knight, among others, when it thundered in 1995: "One thing is clear, none of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust." Knight had been lead prosecutor at Rolando Cruz's first murder trial.

By 1999 Cruz, after ten years on death row and three trials, had finally been acquitted of the 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Moreover, a special prosecutor produced a 47-page indictment that accused Knight and six other defendants (prosecutors and sheriff's officers) of perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.

Knight was again in the paper's crosshairs when reporters Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong wrote on January 12, 1999: "Thousands of pages of testimony from the DuPage 7 grand jury and court documents paint a picture of a prosecution that was constructed with lies and half-truths, buttressed with distorted evidence and, according to the indictment, stitched together with criminal misconduct."

But the trial of the Du Page 7 ended in June 1999 with acquittals all around and a celebration in which jurors partied with the defendants. Instead of repenting, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who'd begun writing about the Cruz prosecution on February 6, 1994, immediately produced a column touting Cruz's pending civil suit against the county. "We're as steadfast as we've ever been," said one of Cruz's lawyers, Lawrence Marshall of Northwestern University. "Rolando Cruz's rights were egregiously violated." Zorn told his readers that Marshall felt "unbridled, sincere contempt" for Cruz's prosecutors.

It was a contempt Zorn apparently shared. Fifteen months later Du Page County settled with Cruz and two other defendants in the Nicarico murder case for $3.5 million. Zorn wrote that the county got off cheap. "County prosecutors and police blew this case big time, then cheated brazenly in an effort to cover their tracks and keep innocent men behind bars for more than 10 years."

I thought Zorn deserved a Pulitzer for pounding away at the Cruz prosecution for eight years (his last column on the subject appeared in November 2002). Knight thought Zorn's columns were "blatantly biased" (to quote his suit) and calculated to turn the public against him. All the more reason for him to find nothing innocent about the Tribune mistake at the heart of his suit.

The mistake was made in that January 12, 1999, article by Possley and Armstrong, a story that dominated the Tribune's front page. Headlined "Prosecution on Trial in DuPage," it was part three of a five-part series on prosecutorial misconduct in America, "Trial & Error--How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win," that ran in the Tribune a few days before the Du Page 7 trial began. Newspapers typically make their investigations more topical by tying publication to a breaking news event. Understandably, Knight interpreted the series as an attempt to influence his trial.

Halfway through the story Possley and Armstrong made this reference to the Du Page 7 grand jury: "As the [first Cruz] trial approached, lead prosecutor Thomas Knight summoned John Gorajczyk, a shoe print examiner in the sheriff's police crime lab, to discuss his examination of Buckley's boots, according to the grand jury transcripts. [Stephen Buckley was one of Cruz's two codefendants.] Earlier, Gorajczyk had compared Buckley's boots to the print on the Nicarico door and concluded they didn't match. He did not write any report about his findings. Gorajczyk told the DuPage grand jury that Knight told him to keep his mouth shut about his conclusion and not to tell anyone that there was no written report."

Knight's suit calls this passage "defamatory...in that, by its plain meaning, it impeached [Knight's] integrity, human decency, and respect for others, thereby tending to lower him in the eyes of the community." First of all, Knight asserted, he'd told Gorajczyk no such thing. Second, Gorajczyk had told the grand jury no such thing--he hadn't even appeared before the grand jury.

The Tribune concedes Knight's second point.

Possley and Armstrong had divided up the writing on the series, and Possley wrote the story on the Du Page prosecutors. When deposed by Knight two years ago, Possley said he'd known at the time that Gorajczyk hadn't testified. What Gorajczyk supposedly had said was told to the grand jury as secondhand testimony by an investigator for the special prosecutor.

"It was essentially a mistake in editing, as we went through the editing process," Possley told Knight. "It was a mistake in attribution....It was a question of getting away from 'according to the grand jury transcript' and saying that over and over and over. And as best as I can recall, it was a question of 'let's try to not be so repetitive.' Can we say, 'Gorajczyk told the grand jury'?"

Knight: "Was it not your responsibility to read the article, since you were the person providing the information that was going into print, to make sure that it was accurate?"

Possley: "Oh, sure, it's always the writer's responsibility to do that."

Knight: "Did you do that?"

Possley: "I'm sure I did."

Knight: "But you didn't change it back to the correct facts, did you?"

Possley: "I did not."

Knight, acting as his own lawyer, originally sued the Tribune for defamation back in January 2000. The first suit didn't dwell on the Gorajczyk passage. He tells me that to keep it from being thrown out of court by Circuit Judge Kathy Flanagan, he amended it to focus on the error he could prove. Then the Tribune asked Flanagan to dismiss the amended suit. In his long rebuttal, Knight pondered the "circumstantial evidence" that the Gorajczyk mistake was neither benign nor accidental.

"Right from the beginning," he argued, "the prosecutorial misconduct project was designed to produce a series of articles which would inflame the public about what the defendants had already concluded to be an epidemic of outrageous misconduct by state prosecutors." The Du Page 7 saga was useful to the Tribune, Knight reasoned, only to the extent it fit the picture. Which is why, he proposed, the Tribune didn't present a balanced picture, didn't, for example, ask him beforehand to confirm Gorajczyk's supposed account.

Knight demanded a jury, and despite the appeal that his picture of a bullying newspaper might might hold for it, the Tribune's shown no interest in settling. Knight's still putting his case together. When I called him a couple of weeks ago, he apologized for his laryngitis. He said his voice had unaccountably gone out on him a few days earlier while he was deposing Zorn and Tribune reporter Steve Mills. Mills has collaborated with Possley on other investigations, but he wasn't involved with "Trial & Error." Zorn wasn't either.

Knight deposed them in order to draw the bigger picture. Zorn had been writing about him for years. At a 1998 seminar on police misconduct for investigative journalists, Mills had described the Tribune's relationship with the Chicago police in blunt terms. He'd said, "It's us against them. They don't like us. I'm not crazy about them. You know, I don't foresee going on vacation with them, so it's fine. I mean, why not make it, you know, sort of an all-out war?"

Knight hopes to persuade a jury that the Gorajczyk passage was a small but telling moment in a no-holds-barred Tribune campaign against guardians of the law. He wants the jury to think long and hard about the memo Armstrong wrote on February 6, 1997, proposing the series that became "Trial & Error." That memo, sent to metro editor Paul Weingarten, began: "History offers so many examples of prosecutors committing flagrant misconduct--of soliciting testimony they know to be a lie; of refusing to disclose information that would help prove a defendant's innocence; of even forging documents to shore up an otherwise shaky case.

"So how can it be--here, in the last decade of the 20th century--that the recent indictment of three prosecutors in the Rolando Cruz case is so astoundingly unusual that some legal experts believe it to be unprecedented?

"Why have prosecutors been getting a free pass, and what are the consequences?

"Let's put prosecutors on trial. Nobody else is."

At this point Weingarten scribbled on Armstrong's memo: "Cruz is entree." Did Weingarten mean by this merely "Cruz is our way into the story"? Perhaps. But Knight is touting another interpretation--that Weingarten meant Cruz would be the main dish. "On the basis of the Armstrong memo alone," Knight wrote, in arguing against the dismissal of his suit, "a jury might well conclude that the defendants intended all along that the DuPage 7 case be made the centerpiece of the prosecutorial misconduct series."

Armstrong's memo went on for another two pages, and he made it clear that he didn't want to limit the paper's investigation to Du Page County. "Let's provide a national picture of the outrages of state prosecutors," he wrote. "To my knowledge, that has not been done. Federal prosecutors have been written about extensively. So have individual cases of gross prosecutorial misconduct in various states. But stitching those cases together and examining how such gross abuses have been allowed to go unchecked is another matter altogether."

If I were a metro editor, I'd be exhilarated by such a tough-minded, imaginative proposal. (Unfortunately for the Tribune, Armstrong is now at the Seattle Times.) Knight read the memo with different eyes. "It is no exaggeration," he told Judge Flanagan, "to suggest that a jury could infer from this memorandum that the prosecutorial misconduct series started as a veritable witch-hunt."

"Trial & Error" began with this sentence: "With impunity, prosecutors across the country have violated their oaths and the law, committing the worst kinds of deception in the most serious of cases." The series infuriated prosecutors everywhere. When it was submitted for a Pulitzer in tandem with a series by Armstrong and Mills on the death penalty, three different groups of prosecutors wrote the Pulitzer Board denouncing it. The most temperate letter of the three--from the president of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA)--called "Trial & Error" "not factually accurate." The Illinois State's Attorneys Association said key assertions were "outrageous" and "simply untrue." A group of Cook County assistant state's attorneys threw Mills's remark back at the Tribune and declared that the paper's reporters weren't interested in truth: "They were simply trying to win what they alone perceived to be a war, using one of warfare's most tried and true tools--propaganda." This letter accused the Tribune of "contempt for law."

Though a finalist, the Tribune entry didn't win a Pulitzer.

What the Cook County state's attorneys argued then, Knight is arguing now. But he's called little attention to his suit and hasn't become the prosecutors' cause celebre. Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor active in the NDAA and a vocal critic of the Tribune, says he hadn't heard a word about Knight's suit in a year and a half until I called him last week.

This slowly moving court case is a personal fight that Knight isn't likely to win. "He's probably got a very, very difficult battle," says Marquis.

Here's why. Tell the court the Tribune's coverage of the Du Page County state's attorney's office was harsh, and the Tribune will reply the coverage was warranted. Persuade the court it wasn't warranted, and the Tribune will argue it's protected anyway as fair comment. Insist there was nothing fair about the Gorajczyk passage, and the Tribune will argue that the inaccuracy was insignificant. Insist that it damaged Knight's good name, and the Tribune will ask how Knight can possibly separate its effect on his good name from what was done to it by all the other journalism--not just in the Tribune but in the Sun-Times and other newspapers, in a book, on 60 Minutes--that told the shameful story of Rolando Cruz.

But the Tribune obviously takes seriously the possibility that the Gorajczyk passage is the loose thread that, if yanked hard enough, could begin to unravel everything the Tribune has written in recent years on criminal injustice. Last December Judge Flanagan denied the Tribune's motion to throw out Knight's suit, and afterward the Tribune dumped its outside lawyers on the case and reached all the way to Houston for a new one. He's Chip Babcock, a First Amendment specialist hailed in Texas as the best there is; six years ago he represented Oprah Winfrey when grousing Texas cattle barons sued her over a comment she'd made on TV about American beef and mad cow disease. Winfrey routed the cattlemen.

Now Babcock's the only one in the Tribune camp allowed to do any talking. He told me he doesn't see how Knight can possibly show the court that the Gorajczyk passage diminished his reputation. He said, "There's a big media haystack out there, and this is a very tiny, little needle."

Good Enough for the Bunny Guy

On June 29 the block of West Walton between Dearborn and Clark was "officially designated Ben Hecht Way," to quote a press release. The Newberry Library, where Hecht's papers are kept, stands on this block, so it was the logical place to honor him. And Hecht, who died 40 years ago this month, was a good person to honor. Generations of this city's young journalists have been intoxicated by The Front Page, a play he wrote with Charles MacArthur, and by the memoirs of his years as a rapscallion Chicago newspaperman.

More to the point, after Hitler came to power, Hecht, by then a prominent screenwriter, passionately lobbied Washington to help Jewish refugees fleeing genocide. After the war he wrote a play, A Flag Is Born, that raised a million dollars to buy a ship--named the SS Ben Hecht--that would run a British blockade to bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

The Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies near Philadelphia has launched a campaign to honor Holocaust rescuers by having streets renamed in their hometowns. Hecht became the first--thanks to the salesmanship of Frank Sullivan, a former Chicago journalist and mayoral spokesman who's active with the institute, and a receptive alderman, Burton Natarus.

The wrinkle in all this is that the West Walton block wasn't officially renamed anything. Honorary Ben Hecht Way enjoys the same stature as the block of Honore south of Division that proudly calls itself Honorary Miller Lumber Avenue.

Natarus loves honorary street names because they're such an easy way to stroke an ego. He estimates that there are more than 100 honorary street names in his 42nd Ward alone. "What we usually do now is just name a corner and put up one sign," he says. "A fellow who was a neighborhood leader we named the southeast corner of Chicago and Michigan Avenue for--George Sikokis Way. I even did one for what's-his-name, the bunny guy [Hugh Hefner]. One sign. I think somebody crawled up there and tore it down."

I asked Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute, why he settled for an honorary street name. "My understanding is that this is the way things work," he said. "When we approached Alderman Natarus we were not aware there was any other possibility other than the way it was done."

Maybe there wasn't. I asked Natarus if it had occurred to anybody to actually name a street after Hecht.

"We don't do that anymore," he said. "If you have to change a street name, then you have to go through a very complicated legal process--change all the plats, all the maps. None of these [honorary] designations are on the plats or maps.

"I had a big controversy with Mies van der Rohe Way. That was one of the last streets we named officially. I was hit with a lot of letters from the American Indian population because we'd changed the name from Seneca."

An honorary street name is a name no one ever uses. Uninformed strangers who notice the brown signposts jutting over the green West Walton signposts will wonder if Hecht was a colorful local saloon keeper who gave generously to the Democratic organization.

A bust would be nice, if the idea is to actually honor Hecht. Or at least a plaque explaining who he was and what he was honored for. Neither has been discussed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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