Are We About to Get Trumped?/ Objection! Prosecutors Protest Trib Series | Media | Chicago Reader

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Are We About to Get Trumped?/ Objection! Prosecutors Protest Trib Series

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By Michael Miner

The effete elite of New York City have never warmed to Donald Trump. Something he does always sets them off, like the apartment house--Trump World Tower--he's building on the east side of Manhattan. "Aesthetically," said Walter Cronkite last year, when the 861-foot tower was but a gleam in Trump's eye, "if the building goes through as he plans, it will dominate the area and completely overshadow the United Nations and its beautiful gardens."

But why should Trump, who until just the other day was running for president, not stand taller than a mere secular symbol of peace on earth? Trump, who bills himself as a "world-class developer," poses an important question: If not by wretched excess, how do we identify what counts? Trusting other multimillionaires to answer that question the same way he does, Trump puts up superluxury residential towers that are wildly popular. Earlier this year in the New York Times, critic Ada Louise Huxtable was praising a new building by somebody else and commented, "The slender tower sets no records for the biggest or glitziest building in New York; that distinction is relentlessly pursued by our very own Donald Trump and has nothing to do with architecture."

Though Trump seems a New York man through and through, he does have casinos in Atlantic City and a gambling boat in Indiana, and he's been thinking of bringing his aesthetic to Chicago. There's no UN to overwhelm here, but our city does offer a choice piece of riverfront real estate in the middle of what's probably the most agreeable cluster of high-rise buildings in the world. The Sun-Times Building is for sale, and Trump is interested.

The Sun-Times's 401 N. Wabash site has been on and off the market for years, but with a new south-side printing plant finally coming on line, the squat, coffin-shaped headquarters has at last become truly expendable. Once it's sold, it's history. I hear parent Hollinger International is asking upwards of $80 million, and the only way a developer could justify an investment like that would be to clear the land and put up a tower--or a couple of them. A new Trump tower rising from the river to lord it over Marina City, the IBM Building, the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, NBC Tower, the Stone Container Building, 333 North Michigan, Lincoln Tower, 35 East Wacker, and the new high-rises by Kevin Roche and Ricardo Bofill on West Wacker would quickly be hailed, by Trump if no one else, as a wonder of the world.

The advantage that Chicago's skyscrapers enjoy over New York's, particularly in this exhilarating pocket of the city, is room to breathe. Separated from one another by a river, broad streets, plazas, and low-rise buildings, these towers haven't so much been built as put up for exhibit. Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building, the tallest of them all, rises fully visible from North Lake Shore Drive.

But that's only because the Sun-Times Building on the east side of Wabash stops at the seventh floor. A residential address the height of Trump World Tower would soar nearly 200 feet above the IBM Building and obliterate it.

Given that opportunity, wouldn't he be crazy not to buy the site, whatever it costs? Assuming he figures out how to do business with the city's Planning Department, he'd not only get the chance to put up something so egregious that the only way to avoid looking at it would be to live there, but he'd get his own railroad.

Yes, the Sun-Times is the last client served by a spur line that runs along the north riverbank under the buildings that hug it. Lucid urban planners such as the Tribune's John McCarron have been screaming for years that the solution to downtown's east-west traffic congestion lies in turning that tunnel into a rapid-transit corridor. Imagine a Trump Trolley connecting the Clinton Street commuter stations to Michigan Avenue, pausing to serve the magnificent Trump Heartland Tower. Trump would have Chicago where it ought to be, beneath his feet and in his debt.

Trump headquarters, located in the original Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, wouldn't comment on Trump's intentions here. Of course he's not the only one who's been eyeing 401 N. Wabash. The John Buck Company (which also declines comment) has shown a keen interest in the property. We don't have to imagine what John Buck would do to the North Bridge neighborhood. From the Marriott to 600 North Michigan to Nordstrom, DisneyQuest, and ESPN Zone, he's already done it.

In 1983 the Sun-Times newspaper was sold to Rupert Murdoch. Do you believe in deja vu?

Objection! Prosecutors Protest Trib Series

I'd hoped and more than half expected to be writing a column this week praising the Tribune for winning a Pulitzer. The paper was a finalist in the most prestigious of all newspaper categories, public service, for two remarkable 1999 series: "Trial & Error, How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win," reported by Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong, and "The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois," reported by Armstrong and Steve Mills. Shortly after the second series concluded, Governor Ryan ordered a moratorium on executions.

The point I intended to make was that sometimes it takes a village to win a Pulitzer, and this was one of those times. The prodigious fact-finding of Possley, Armstrong, and Mills didn't begin at zero. To name only some other journalists--while scanting the essential contributions of lawyers, investigators, and citizens' groups--the trail had been blazed by Rob Warden, writing years ago in Chicago Lawyer, by David Protess and his students, by the Reader's John Conroy, and by the Tribune's own columnist Eric Zorn and editorial-page editor Don Wycliff, who as individual writers seemed more troubled by injustice than the Tribune allowed itself to be as an institution.

But this year there's no Pulitzer for the Tribune. On Monday the public-service award went instead to the Washington Post.

There was furious opposition to the Tribune entry--not from other journalists but from prosecutors. Cook County state's attorneys were outraged from the first phrase of the first sentence of the first installment of the first series, "Trial & Error," when it appeared in January 1999. "With impunity," Armstrong and Possley began, "prosecutors across the country have violated their oaths and the law, committing the worst kinds of deception in the most serious of cases."

Thirteen Cook County assistant state's attorneys, acting--so I'm told--independently of their boss, Richard Devine, wrote the Pulitzer Board two months ago and urged it to repudiate the Tribune entry. Their three-page letter began with the equivalent of a stick in the eye. This was a quote from Mills, taken from a 1998 seminar in New Orleans on police misconduct: "It's very clear. 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."

The letter proceeded to accuse the Tribune of "skewed perspective," lack of context, sensationalism, and dishonesty. "Prosecutorial misconduct," it asserted, is a legal term that usually amounts to no more than innocent error. "The mathematics reveal that only .000761194% of all felony cases prosecuted in Cook County from 1993-1999 have been reversed based on 'prosecutorial misconduct,'" the prosecutors' letter asserted (the emphasis is theirs). So tiny a percentage "is clearly not deserving of a headline which illustrates the Tribune's contempt for law."

The letter concluded with an appeal to the Pulitzer Board to do the right thing, composed in language full of the fervor with which the state begs a jury to put away a menace to society. "We all know that when engaged in an 'all out war,' a different set of standards apply. We think that if you look closely at the Tribune's 1999 series of articles...it becomes clear that the most blatant examples of 'systematic corruption and intentional misconduct' are found not among prosecutors but among the Tribune's own 'purporters'--who should in no way be rewarded for abandoning their professional commitment to exposing wrongdoing through an honest truth-seeking investigative process. It is clear to us, and to any fair-minded observer, that these reporters were not trying to tell the 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. At the end of it all, by engaging in slanted, sensational and manipulative journalism, they have succeeded, not in uncovering widespread evil among prosecutors, but in unjustly provoking public suspicion of an honorable profession.

"We urge you not to compound this ongoing miscarriage of justice against scores of hardworking honest prosecutors by awarding these unethical journalists the prestigious Pulitzer Prize."

The letter was accompanied by a stack of documents that a board member tells me was an inch and a half thick. And this wasn't the only letter. The president of the National District Attorneys Association also wrote the board. Stuart VanMeveren, a district attorney from Fort Collins, Colorado, suggested much more temperately that the Tribune entry "would be an inappropriate selection based upon the methodology...and the conclusions."

VanMeveren told the Pulitzer Board that the NDAA had been able to review 221 of 384 homicide convictions that according to the Tribune had been overturned across the nation since 1963 because prosecutors allegedly had manipulated evidence. Some turned out not to be murder cases, VanMeveren wrote. Others were so old they were irrelevant to current procedural requirements, and still others were reversed because of the defense counsel's incompetence rather than the prosecutor's misconduct.

In only 15.4 percent of those 221 cases, VanMeveren told the board, were charges dismissed with no retrial. In another 10.4 percent of the cases the defendant was retried and acquitted. In 55.2 percent of the cases, the defendant was retried and convicted of the same or a lesser offense.

"We are convinced," VanMeveren concluded, "that the Chicago Tribune's work is not factually accurate due to limited research, and therefore does not accurately portray the mission of America's state and local prosecutors to seek justice and protect the rights and safety of all people."

A third letter, this one submitted in late March by the Illinois State's Attorneys Association, was signed by 17 officers, among them Richard Devine and Joseph Birkett, state's attorney of Du Page County. This letter also noted the Tribune claim to have found 381 homicide cases that were reversed because "prosecutors knowingly used false evidence or withheld evidence" and labeled it an "outrageous statement" and "simply untrue." The reporters were accused of fobbing off extreme misbehavior as typical, ignoring context, and--in essence--going about their work backward by establishing "a premise in search of supporting facts."

Unlike the first two letters, this one took aim at the death-penalty series. "Even more startling is the fact that the paper had declared that 12 'innocent' persons have been wrongfully prosecuted and sentenced to death. The authors are operating on the false premise that anyone ever subsequently acquitted was in fact innocent and wrongfully prosecuted. It is grossly irresponsible to tell the public that each of these defendants have been determined to be innocent. Again, the journalists' facts are wrong. They are untrue....In one case, and arguably in one other, a concession of innocence has been made. However, in the majority of these 12 cases no such concession of innocence has been made. There is no attempt to be at all balanced or even acknowledge that the victims, police and prosecutors (in some cases the jurors who found them 'guilty') continue to feel strongly that the defendants were in fact guilty."

But if I may respond on behalf of the Tribune, prosecutors' stubborn insistence on guilt is part of the problem. In Chicago we've seen prosecutors stick by evidence that strikes onlookers as worthless and when one theory of guilt collapses come up with another and then another, rather than confront the possibility that the suspect's innocent. Thus a Rolando Cruz could spend 12 years in prison, almost ten of them on death row, and be tried three times for murder before a fed-up judge cut him loose. Should we feel better about DuPage County prosecutors because they still feel Cruz did it?

Steve Mills didn't want to be interviewed for this story, and managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski, who oversaw the Tribune entry, didn't return my call. The letters of the prosecutors certainly don't flatter the Tribune, but neither do they flatter their vengeful authors. It's possible they had no effect on the judges. Jurors of the public-service award that I talked to don't recall even seeing the Cook County letter (the other two were written well after the jurors met in early March to nominate finalists but before the board met last week to pick winners). The board read them--along with the Tribune's rebuttals, which I haven't--but Seymour Topping, administrator of the Pulitzer prizes, believes the protest ultimately was "not a factor." Board member Edward Seaton, editor in chief of the Manhattan Mercury in Kansas, told me, "I don't think it played much of a role. I don't think it played any role."

Unfortunately, perhaps, for the Tribune entry, the board member who could say with the most authority what constitutes fair and unfair criticism of prosecutors had to leave the room. Jack Fuller is a lawyer who once served as an assistant to the late attorney general of the United States, Edward Levi. But as president of the Tribune Publishing Company, he had to excuse himself while the public-service winner was being debated. So did John Carroll, editor of the Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror paper just purchased by the Tribune Company.

News Bites

The Tribune came close in another Pulitzer category. Reporters David Jackson and Cornelia Grumman were finalists in national reporting for a series on the privatization of care for abused and delinquent kids. But the only winner Chicago can claim is Mark Schoofs of the Village Voice, whose series on AIDS in Africa prevailed over combat coverage in Chechnya and Kosovo in international reporting. Schoofs is a former editor of Windy City Times.

Air Zimbabwe has stopped rumbling ominously about a lawsuit and finally filed one against the Chicago Tribune. The suit, which alleges libel and gross negligence, accuses the Tribune and other defendants of causing a "substantial drop" in passenger travel aboard Air Zimbabwe by "maliciously" exposing the African carrier to "public hatred, contempt, and ridicule."

Last June the Tribune published a travel article by freelancer Gaby Plattner in which she described a hop aboard an Air Zimbabwe jet whose pilot made a trip to the bathroom and locked himself out of the cockpit. Plattner said afterward that another passenger told her this story and she decided to retell it in the first person for dramatic effect, discovering only after her account ran in the Tribune that she'd swallowed whole an urban legend.

Plattner is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as are the operator of a Web site that posted the article and "an unknown number" of John Does who copied it and spread it across the Internet. With the Net, there's no longer any way to screw up and hope nobody will notice.

The Sun-Times's courtship of the suburbs is arguably essential; its soft-pedaling of senseless violence is arguably enlightened. Sometimes what it prints as a result is inarguably ridiculous. Last Thursday the paper devoted a quarter page to a picture and story out of Orland Park headlined "Water tower gets some school spirit." Friday brought another quarter-pager, "Common name causes confusion over prize," the tale of a Berwyn minister who thought he'd won skybox tickets to Wrigley Field in a raffle but hadn't. An article nearly as long in the same edition was "Naperville planning to build third library." Then there was "Melrose Park motel probed over mold level."

No more important than it sounds, the mold story was treated as a 25-line brief. But even at that length it ran seven lines longer than one of the briefs in the next day's paper. This one was merely a Chicago story--about a Lawndale community leader found shot to death in his home after failing to show up for a march he'd organized against gun violence.

Discussing a peculiar new relationship last week between the Sun-Times and the Web site Chicago-Scene.com, which three days a week furnishes the paper with snapshots of attractive young barflies, I wrote that the deal gives Chicago-Scene.com access "to the newspaper's 500,000-some daily readers."

Not so, editor in chief Nigel Wade E-mailed me. "That would be 1,683,990 daily Sun-Times readers (as reported by the Scarborough research organization)"--more than the Tribune and all but four other American newspapers. According to Scarborough and Wade, the average weekly copy of the Sun-Times is read by more than three people. Does that explain why the Tribune has placed recycling bins on el platforms but the Sun-Times hasn't?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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