The Imperfect Criminal Justice System
Recent Medill graduate learns that discerning the truth and trying to free the innocent is a life-changing experience. by Molly Browne
"And this is where the shooter would have been standing," Sergio Serritella told us. Using his finger as an imaginary handgun, he pointed toward the street, describing the homicide.
The shooter. Right. Our group of Medill seniors all nodded slowly, in an effort both to acknowledge the gravity of what was said and absorb the details that would keep us up at night.
"It doesn't add up," the private investigator said of the state's version of the murder we were investigating."It just doesn't add up."
It was early October, and I was standing outside a small wooden house whose rickety, rusted fence belied its protective purpose. A mild evening in Chicago's West Side Humboldt Park neighborhood meant children were riding their bikes up and down a thankfully well-lit street. But 10 years earlier a man was murdered just steps from where I stood. Our task was to find out if the two people serving time for the crime in Illinois' Dixon Correctional Center were actually guilty.
Imagine a course syllabus that includes talking to the parents of a murder victim, flying to San Diego to interview an incarcerated witness, and appealing to the morals of a seasoned jailhouse snitch. Those were just a few of the tasks that I and four other seniors were assigned as students in Professor David Protess' Investigative Journalism class this past year.
For nine months we logged countless hours each week scrutinizing trial transcripts, interviewing sources, canvassing neighborhoods and road-tripping to three different Illinois prisons - and flying to one in California - in an attempt to right the wrong of what we came to believe was an unjust conviction. Our goal was simple: To find the truth. Our search for it, however, was anything but.
Protess, founding director of the Medill Innocence Project, and his students have been credited with helping to overturn the wrongful convictions of nine men. It seems ridiculous that, armed with reporting skills, time and enthusiasm, students could uncover the truth where so many police officers, lawyers and judges have failed. It seems incredible that groups of Northwestern seniors size up convicted felons, hang out in neighborhoods not known for their picket fences, and don body wires for their safety. We grieved with family members of the victim one day and of the convicts the next. There were times at the beginning of the investigation that I wondered,"How am I actually doing this?" As time passed I wondered,"How could I not be doing this?"
The purpose of the class is not, Protess cautioned us, to get people out of prison. Rather it's to examine a potential miscarriage of justice, using the tools and ethics of professional journalists. But it would be a lie to say we didn't begin to see ourselves as advocates once our investigation convinced us that the two men behind bars for the crime were innocent. Protess said on the first day of class that there is no sound louder than the slamming of a prison gate. Once we believed our defendants' claims of innocence, the slam was deafening.
We wanted to help them regain the freedom they once enjoyed, to reunite them with their families, to see them make lives for themselves. The best way for us to work toward that goal was to relentlessly pursue the truth - a complicated, messy and typically elusive entity. The cliché is true: It would set them free.
As student journalists, we learned a lot about just how malleable"truth" can be.
I visited with four prisoners during our investigation, never tiring of the long road trips. Even the frequent rush-hour drives down to Humboldt Park were exciting. It's largely for that reason that I know this class has changed me.
I used to worry about finding a job that would pay my rent, about having a prestigious title, about earning another degree. Now my biggest fear is choosing a career that just pays my rent, or even worse, that bores me.
I plan on attending law school and eventually defending people like the inmates I met in this case. The criminal justice system makes far too many mistakes. If I had my way, I'd see Protess and his students out of work one day.
Molly Browne (J04) is a project assistant in the Chicago offices of the law firm Winston & Strawn.