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Delo, Adams, Goldstein, Williams and Sullivan

From left, Stacey Delo, Kenneth Adams, Stephanie Goldstein, Dennis Williams and Laura Sullivan.
Trio of Angels
Three students help free four death row inmates.

Three recent graduates of the Medill School of Journalism share a bonding experience they may not list on their résumés but that made more of an impact than any academic achievement: They helped to save four lives.

As seniors in professor David Protess' investigative journalism course, Laura Sullivan, Stephanie Goldstein and Stacey Delo (all J96) volunteered to investigate the case of four African American men wrongfully convicted of killing a young, white couple in 1978. Dubbed the Ford Heights Four, Kenneth Adams, Verneal Jimerson, Willie Rainge and Dennis Williams spent almost two decades in prison in Illinois, including time on death row for two of them. They were exonerated because the three students - with Protess, a band of lawyers and private investigators - proved that the four men were innocent.

Not only did the three receive accolades from Protess for their work, they were featured in a book documenting the case, A Promise of Justice, which Protess co-authored with journalist Rob Warden last year. There is talk of the story being filmed.

Goldstein is now studying public-interest law at Georgetown University. The Ford Heights Four case augmented her decision to study law and continues to do so. "In times of doubt [in law school], when I wonder if I'm doing the right thing," she says, "it keeps me going."

Sullivan, now a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, says working on the case opened her eyes to the criminal justice system. "When you see something like that from the inside, you realize these men were freed not because the death penalty [legal process] works, as many people believe, but because of the efforts of many people - and sheer luck," she says.

The Ford Heights Four experience helped Delo gain a new respect for the fragility of life. "You've got four guys who had 18 years ripped away from under their feet,"she says. "This taught me that you should enjoy every day. You never know what could happen next."

Delo now works for an investment firm in St. Louis and plans to enter business school. "I definitely am someone who believes an individual can make a difference," Delo says. "Sometimes, I think [the concept is] hard to grasp when society is so large."

Regardless of where their career paths end, the three say participating in the Ford Heights Four case will always stay with them. "There is not any aspect of my life that working on this case hasn't affected," says Sullivan. "You learn that you really can effect change. ... Anyone can." - L.A.