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This Gun's for Hire 

True-life tales of the nobility of the courts

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The Chicago Tribune nearly won a Pulitzer for a two-part series published in 2000, "State of Execution: The Death Penalty in Texas." The principal reporters, finalists for the prize, were Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills.

The articles excoriated the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, the state's highest criminal court, for repeatedly failing to do its duty as "the state's court of last resort, a gatekeeper that is supposed to remedy injustice, correct fundamental errors that occur at trial, and ensure that convicted defendants receive a fair hearing on appeal....

"To handle Death Row appeals, the court has appointed attorneys with previous disciplinary records or little experience. In its rulings, the court has frequently proved tolerant of flawed convictions and reluctant to acknowledge holes in the prosecution's case....

"The court has even refused relief to a convicted rapist, Roy Criner, even though DNA testing conducted after trial showed the semen found in the victim wasn't his. The case is so problematic that one judge who voted with the majority told the Tribune he now believes his vote in the case was wrong and Criner should get a new trial."

Criner got lucky. He was eventually pardoned by Governor George W. Bush.

The opinion that denied Criner a new trial was written by Judge Sharon Keller, who the Tribune said "has in many ways come to epitomize the current appeals court and its handling of cases." Since shortly after "State of Execution" was published, Keller has been the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and now she's back in the news. An article on Judge Keller in Sunday's New York Times recalls the Criner decision, which it says highlighted what her critics see "as her strong and habitual bias for the prosecution. Many Texas defense lawyers describe her as a law-and-order zealot who rejects most appeals out of hand."

The article, which also quotes admirers who praised her ethics and judicial temperament, was written because the judge is in big trouble. Back on September 25, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it had accepted a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of execution by lethal injection. As it happened, Texas was planning to put a condemned man to death by lethal injection that very evening. When lawyers for that man, Michael Richard, who'd confessed to rape and murder, found out what the Supreme Court had done, they immediately began preparing an appeal that asked Texas to postpone the execution until the court ruled. But computer difficulties slowed their work, and when they saw that they wouldn't be able to hand-deliver their appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals by the time the office closed at 5 PM, they called ahead and asked for an extra 20 minutes. A court official passed on the request to Judge Keller, who'd already gone home. "We close at 5," she replied. Richard was executed that night.

Last month the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct served notice to Keller that it was charging her with incompetence, violation of her duties, and conduct discrediting the judiciary. It quoted the Houston Chronicle as saying the Richard matter "put a stain on Texas justice that can only be cleansed by the removal" of Judge Keller, the Dallas Morning News as saying it "evinced a relish for death that makes the blood of decent people run cold."

Keller denies the charges and has hired a lawyer. There will be a public hearing, and the judge could be thrown off the bench.

Unless the Chicago Tribune's online archives are misleading, its editorial page had nothing to say in 2007 about the execution of Michael Richard. The time had apparently passed when it was so preoccupied by prosecutorial and judicial misconduct that its coverage—primarily by Armstrong, Mills, and Maurice Possley—gained it the enmity of prosecutors across America. In 2000 prosecutors went so far as to lobby the Pulitzer board to keep the Tribune from winning journalism's highest honor. That year a 1999 series by Armstrong and Possley, "Trial & Error—How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win," and a 1999 series by Armstrong and Mills, "Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois," were entered together and named a finalist in the public service category. A year later, "State of Execution" was a finalist in national reporting. In 2003 the Tribune broke through—Cornelia Grumman won a Pulitzer for her editorials on death penalty reform.

In 2000 the Tribune, Armstrong, and Possley (neither is with the paper any longer) were taken to court by Thomas Knight, a former Du Page County prosecutor the paper had pounded for years over the misbegotten prosecution of the wrong men for the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico. "Trial & Error" had reported that an expert who'd concluded a boot print recovered at the victim's home didn't match the boots worn by suspect Stephen Buckley testified to a grand jury that Knight had told him to keep his mouth shut. In fact, the examiner hadn't testified; the grand jury had heard the allegation (which Knight denied) secondhand from another witness. Knight sued for malicious defamation.

Taking no chances, the Tribune reached all the way to Texas for a lawyer. At the time I described Charles "Chip" Babcock as "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."

At the trial in 2005, Babcock routed Knight too. Afterward I wrote, "Having doled out a couple million dollars in legal fees to save itself from humiliation at the hands of Thomas Knight, the Tribune was simply getting what it paid for when its hired gun out of Texas, Chip Babcock, brought his closing argument to a rousing climax. Even so, his finale was a tonic to the journalists who stuffed the courtroom. How often does someone say that what they do is worth doing?"

Before beginning his summation, Babcock had put a bound copy of the "Trial & Error" series on each juror's chair. Now he said, "I encourage you at some point during your deliberations or at some other time—these are yours to keep—that you spend the time to read this series. It is important award-winning journalism and is shedding light on our societal problems so that people like Steve Buckley [the only one of the three Nicarico defendants who wasn't originally sentenced to death] don't have to spend three years in prison when they are innocent."

He went on: "What a defamation case is about is, as Mr. Knight said, deterring people from doing things. I wrote down what he said. I wrote it in red. 'I want you to award punitive damages,' he said, 'so that the Chicago Tribune doesn't do this again.' And God help us if the Chicago Tribune doesn't do this again. Because our society needs newspapers studying our problems. Prosecutors are immune. The government is powerful. It's the media and the newspapers that keep a check on government excesses, and that's exactly what they were doing here.

"And there is an innocent mistake that was made that has given this man a hook to sue us and keep us all here for three weeks. And that is his right. We respect this process, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for engaging in it. But we can respect this process, but not his lawsuit. And we have no respect for his lawsuit."

Babcock's newest client is Judge Sharon Keller.

The AP's Hiring

The Associated Press is hiring in Chicago. And not for entry-level positions, either.

Does this mean that as newspapers shrink their staffs, the AP is expanding its own to compensate? 'Fraid not. Last November the AP announced that it was cutting its global work force of 4,100 by 10 percent and moving 91 editor jobs from New York City and several state bureaus to four new regional editing centers—in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Phoenix. The central region, based here, will consist of Illinois and 13 other states. The jobs advertised on the AP's "career" Web site include regional editor, broadcast editor, and enterprise editor for the central region.

In short, new jobs need filling in Chicago because old jobs are disappearing in other cities, and the AP will have plenty of applicants from its own ranks. But all those journalists laid off from places like the Trib and Sun-Times can hope. From this group "I get a call a day," someone in the AP's Chicago bureau told me.

Weekly Shuffle

Fourteen months ago Wednesday Journal Inc. of Oak Park kept three Chicago neighborhood weeklies alive by picking them up when the Sun-Times Media Group decided not to operate them any longer.

Then times got tough. And tougher. Last week the company announced it was dropping two of those papers, the Booster and News-Star, which together covered the north side from Lakeview up to Rogers Park, as well as the west edition of the Chicago Journal, which covered Bucktown and Wicker Park.

Those two northwest-side neighborhoods "were communities we could never get a toehold in," vice president Andy Johnston told me, "little boutiques that don't advertise and little restaurants that don't advertise."

But the Booster and News-Star have been sold for a song—no, not a song, a couple of bars of music—to Inside Publications, which publishes Inside, a free weekly covering North Center and Lincoln Square. Publisher Ron Roenigk will merge Inside and the Booster, which had been sold by subscription, into a single free paper called the Inside-Booster or the Booster-Inside.

The title doesn't matter to Roenigk. What does is the Booster and News-Star's legal notices. "Sadly, the only advertising that's up is foreclosure notices," he says. "That's become a valuable asset. I've been chasing it for 20 years."

He's paying for the two titles by giving Wednesday Journal Inc. a piece of the legal-notices revenue through the end of the year. "I'm broke." Roenigk says. "I don't have any money to buy them." He recently moved Inside out of Lincoln Square to his home in Rogers Park to save $25,000 a year in rent.

The Booster is my neighborhood paper, and since Wednesday Journal took it over my wife's considered it the best newspaper in Chicago. It'll change now. And so will the News-Star. "I doubt they'll be anywhere near as thorough as they were with the Wednesday Journal," says Roenigk. "I can only afford to do so much."v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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