The Press: The Big Payback | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Press: The Big Payback

Columnist Eric Zorn's straight talk on murder, revenge, and abolishing the death penalty.

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You won't find Eric Zorn outside Stateville holding a candle during executions. He isn't your typical death penalty opponent, and not just because he has a column in the Chicago Tribune.

Writing about death row inmate Lloyd Hampton, Zorn said he'd start the lethal IV drip himself if he thought Hampton's execution would deter other murderers. On John Wayne Gacy, Zorn acknowledged it was not only hard to argue against executing Gacy, it was hard to argue that he shouldn't be tortured first--"flayed with nail scissors, say, then hogtied and tossed into a dank pit of hungry rats."

No, you won't find Eric Zorn with hot wax dripping on his fingers. But you also won't find another local columnist who's picked up the anti-death-penalty baton and run with it as Zorn has, in nearly 40 columns dealing with the issue directly or indirectly since 1992. "I think they're splendid," says David Protess, professor of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "I think Eric Zorn tries to stimulate public debate over an issue that's one of the most controversial in America today. He's playing one of journalism's highest roles."

But it's not a popular position. Zorn is quick to point out that polls consistently show a majority of Americans in favor of capital punishment, often in the 70 or 80 percent range. As Zorn told the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty in a speech last year, "You want to know how to be the winner in a death penalty argument? The answer is simple. Two words: Switch sides."

Still, Zorn stays on the losing side of the argument. Last year he took up the case of death row inmate Rolando Cruz in a series of 15 columns and 8 subsequent columns, exhaustively examining evidence he maintains shows Cruz's innocence in the 1983 rape and murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. The Illinois supreme court overturned Cruz's second conviction last summer, and Cruz's third trial is set to begin September 11. Jed Stone, Cruz's lawyer in his second trial, gives credit for that to Cruz's various lawyers and, of course, the supreme court itself. "But a great deal of credit has to be put on the shoulders of Eric Zorn for his informing the public of the injustice of the conviction of Rolando Cruz," he says.

On May 9 Zorn wrote his seventh column about Girvies Davis, who is scheduled to be executed on May 17 unless Governor Edgar grants him clemency. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board will make a recommendation to Edgar after a hearing on May 11. David Schwartz, one of Davis's attorneys from Jenner & Block, which is defending Davis pro bono, says he can't answer whether Zorn's columns will help persuade Edgar. "Basically Governor Edgar is the only one standing between Girvies Davis and the execution chamber, and I don't know what facts are going to be important to him in deciding whether to grant clemency to him," says Schwartz. "I suspect the more people in Illinois who are aware of this case and are concerned that an innocent man may be executed for something he didn't do, the better chance we have of getting the governor to be interested in what happens to Girvies Davis, and in that sense I think Eric Zorn's columns have helped."

Zorn should have ample opportunity to continue examining the death penalty. There are 156 prisoners on Illinois' death row now, and a September 20 execution date has just been set for Charles Albanese, convicted of murdering three family members with arsenic.

"I guess there's this feeling that why would you bother being against the death penalty when it looks like a lost argument," says Zorn. "But I guess you could've said that about a number of issues like civil rights, slavery--and I don't want to put myself in a noble pantheon, but history does change people's attitudes, and sometimes they start with relatively small movements, smaller than 30 percent of the population. So I don't feel like it's totally futile railing, like if I were railing against taxation or something or the government's right to issue driver's licenses."

Ted Bundy, of all people, nudged Zorn into opposing the death penalty. Or rather, it was the raucous crowds of people celebrating Bundy's execution. "I was one of these people who didn't give [the death penalty] much thought, and when it happened to people like Ted Bundy I couldn't feel that sorry about it," Zorn recalls. "One of the things that got me, that started turning me around--it was a slow process, it wasn't like one day I was struck by some revelation--one of the things was watching the cheering when Bundy was executed....It was this real internal dissonance, to see these idiots carrying on, celebrating the death of a human being in that fashion, realizing that I was on their side. That's kind of a clue that the candidate you're backing for political office is secretly a Nazi or something. I wanted to look into it a little bit more."

Zorn wanted to build the case against the death penalty from a pragmatic point of view. "So I decided I would write these early columns trying to relate to the people who I think are maybe on the edge, like I was," he says. "The people who are out there cheering and screaming are convinced. The people who are holding candles and crying are convinced. My columns are not for those people. My columns are for people who feel a little strange about the whole idea and try to justify it to themselves. Who can't just be blandly accepting of the idea that we kill people, but they try to justify it in their own minds."

He started with Lloyd Hampton. As Zorn summed it up in his first death penalty column on November 12, 1992, "Hampton hogtied 69-year-old widower Jasper Pendleton, burned his eyelids with a cigarette, taped his nose and mouth shut and stabbed him in the forehead and throat." Hampton said he'd killed Pendleton in order to receive the death penalty, finding that easier than suicide. He volunteered to die, demanded that "liberal crybabies" not appeal his sentence, and then backed out. "You can believe that capital punishment is wrong even if you believe Hampton has no right to live," wrote Zorn.

Zorn's column on Hampton introduced several of what would become his main themes: the death penalty as an expensive "state-sponsored boondoggle"; the idea that capital punishment would be moral, if not a moral imperative, if it could be proved that it has a deterrent effect on other would-be murderers--though nearly every study shows it is not a deterrent; the idea that he could be against the death penalty and tough on crime; and his unflinching look at the death row inmates themselves, whether he believes an individual is guilty or not.

Zorn calls capital punishment a boondoggle because the overwhelming weight of studies shows it has no deterrent effect. As he wrote in the Hampton column, it "promises much, costs plenty and accomplishes nothing." The judicial process for death row inmates costs millions of extra dollars, he says, "and then at the end, after you go through this whole thing, you put on this great big death pageant, kill somebody, and then you get nothing for it. You get no deterrence."

Politicians who endorse the death penalty as a tough-on-crime position are hypocritical, he says. "They aren't really willing to look into and start doing the kinds of things you need to do to start solving the crime problem, or attacking the crime problem, let's say." The anti-death-penalty position is "a much more smart-on-crime position," he insists, "because you can take the resources that go into [the judicial execution process] and put them into whatever you want. You can put 'em into prisons, put 'em into community programs, education, jobs. You can take that money and spend it."

William Kunkle, a former Cook County assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Gacy, is a prominent local death penalty advocate. He doesn't care about deterrence.

In one Gacy column, Zorn quoted Kunkle in a debate last year at Chicago-Kent College of Law: "The reason you should execute John Wayne Gacy is he deserves it. This is called just deserts punishment."

While Zorn believes the death penalty without deterrence is simply vengeance, Kunkle thinks that's "entirely appropriate." Vengeance, he says, "is the glue which holds society together....If we're not prepared to exert effort, emotion, on behalf of the taking of some unknown citizen's life, unjustly, then we don't live in a truly free society, or in a society where one citizen cares for another. And we're back in the ancient concept of vendetta, which is related to vengeance, which is you don't worry about anybody else, but when one of your relatives gets killed you go out and execute without a trial a member of the killer's family, or the killer. That's the system the justice system was invented to replace."

The just deserts argument doesn't work, says Zorn, because even Gacy didn't get what he deserved. As he wrote before Gacy's execution, just deserts for Gacy would include sexual assault. "Then the attacker would violate Gacy with physical objects, though first he would gag him in order to mute the screams. Afterward, the attacker would take Gacy to a full bathtub on the pretense of 'cleaning up,' but instead he would hold Gacy's head under the water until he passed out, pull him out, revive him, then plunge him underwater again....Then he would show his thoroughly terrified and submissive victim one last perverse stunt--'the rope trick'--in which he would place a cord around Gacy's neck and slowly strangle the life out of him. And even this gruesome and sadistic torture ...wouldn't be all that Gacy truly deserves. To give him that, the attacker would have to stop just short of death the first time, then repeat the process over and over, once for each victim until finally killing him and giving him an ignominious burial."

"But we don't do that," says Zorn. "Our system of justice holds itself above that in every other case. If someone is guilty of assault, we don't take him into the courtroom, say, 'OK you're found guilty, bailiff come beat up the defendant.' We don't do that. Because we realize violence only begets more of the same. It creates a violent society. I mean, that's one of the questions I ask--why don't we torture people? Why don't we cut off their hands and arms and whip them in the public square and put them in stocks? When someone is a drunk driver and kills someone, why don't we go put them in a car and put a brick on the accelerator and tie their hands behind their back and drive them into a wall? Why don't we do that stuff?"

After describing Gacy's real just deserts, Zorn wrote, "Hey, even I, an opponent of the death penalty, would smile to hear that such a thing had happened to Gacy during, say, a prison riot." Since then, mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer has met his own end at the hands of a fellow prisoner. "Dahmer deserved what he got," says Zorn. "I admit that I didn't grieve over the loss of Jeff Dahmer." But, he says, "there's a big difference between someone getting what they deserved in the course of events and the state in a very cold rational way responding in the same way."

"It will feel good to most of us, sure," he wrote of Gacy's execution. "Such satisfaction usually does. But we'll be a little smaller for it. And that's just what we'll deserve."

Zorn comes back repeatedly to the idea that death penalty opponents should not cede the morally outraged, tough-on-crime position to death penalty advocates. Part of his strategy is to express possibly more disgust with murderers than even his pro-death-penalty readers can muster. Gacy remains a prime example.

After conjuring up the nail scissors and rats image in one column before Gacy's execution, Zorn bluntly told death penalty opponents they "had best sit this one out." "He's so damn guilty he's a metaphor for guilt," he wrote. "But he will soon be a dead metaphor, as it were, at which point the debate over this defining issue just might be able to move forward rationally. In the meantime, just this once, I won't object if they get out the nail scissors."

That drew several miffed letters from death penalty opponents, including Seth Donnelly, director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. "The basic message of Zorn's piece is that state execution/torture is, in and of itself, not a violation of our human integrity, but rather can be righteously and selectively applied," he wrote. Rather than sitting it out, wrote Donnelly, "I believe the challenge requires abolitionists to be all the more firm and clear in our opposition to the death penalty."

In a recent interview, Donnelly stressed that he respects Zorn's columns and admires the investigative reporting he's done on the issue. But he doesn't regret not sitting Gacy out. "If we did not speak up and if we did not say it's wrong even in that case, in the worst of the worst, it's wrong for the government to be involved in murder, we would be setting a precedent for sanctioning the death penalty by our silence, and people would wonder, if these people oppose the death penalty, why aren't they speaking up?"

Zorn hasn't changed his mind either. "I would still say with Gacy, when you come right down to it, I still find it real hard today to think of a reason to spare his life. I don't come at it from an all-life-is-sacred viewpoint," he says. "Of the columns in my life that I've written that I'd like to retract, I don't think that's one.

"In general, I'm not appealing to sympathy," Zorn explains. With Gacy, "it was a totally losing argument. Just sit it out. Kill him, fine. Don't say it's right, just do it and let's focus on the issue, let's not focus on the individual. Because when you do, when the [Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty] people get all geared up on their high horse for Gacy, they look like weenies. They look like people who would save the worst people in the world, that's what they care about, they're out saying prayers and singing for these terrible people, and for me that's just not the point. The death penalty should not be seen as an episodic series of events. It's societal, it's a statewide program, it's a system, and as it grinds along they're not all gonna be John Gacys and Hernando Williamses.

"The death penalty is really an emotional issue on both sides, and I think you have to acknowledge that emotion," Zorn says. "If you're going to oppose the death penalty, you can't allow the people in favor of it to seize the high ground of being tougher on crime and feeling more sorry for the victims. You can't say OK, I'm gonna take the position or argue the point for the downtrodden psycho killer. You end up looking like you're just softheaded."

Zorn's level gaze at death row inmates doesn't waver even for Cruz and Davis. In his many Cruz columns, he calls Cruz at various times a mope, a lying goof, and a cocky punk. When he first met Cruz in a death row visit, says Zorn, "He chewed me out.

"He was clearly a liar, he clearly perjured himself, it's pretty clear he was a burglar," Zorn says of Cruz, whose lawyers admit that Cruz made up stories about the Nicarico murder hoping to cash in on the $10,000 reward. "And think about it--what kind of an asshole would play with the emotions of Pat and Tom Nicarico, and would make a joke or play around, whatever the hell he was doing by jerking those cops around and playing those games with them--that was sick. Doing that, that was disgusting. And he deserves contempt for that. So I'm not gonna say, gee, Rolando, come be a baby-sitter for my son. That's not the point. The point is, did the justice system take this guy and railroad him in an obscene way?...It's outrageous what happened there, and it doesn't have to happen to a Boy Scout or to a model citizen to maintain its level of outrage."

Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who represented Cruz on appeal, admires Zorn's columns but adds, "He's been fiercely independent. There are things he's written that have upset the defense. He hasn't been our spokesperson." Specifically, says Marshall, Zorn "portrayed Rolando Cruz in a brutally honest way." It's not that he doesn't agree with Zorn, says Marshall, but it was "harsh talk."

Zorn's portrayal of Girvies Davis is even less sentimental. Davis confesses his involvement in two robberies where the victims were murdered, but denies being the killer. Zorn's first column on Davis described him as "a hard, bad man who led a hard, bad life." Speaking on Jay Marvin's WLS radio program with Davis on the phone last week, "I kept saying he was a bad guy," says Zorn. "I made Davis tell people he was a bad guy and he did bad things."

Zorn points out a headline in a recent Illinois Times that called Davis "innocent." "Someone sees that and then they realize he's not innocent, and they can't trust the writer," he says. "I try to be as factual as I can. I don't mind the charge that I've got an ax to grind, that I'm not objective, but anybody says I'm inaccurate, that to me starts whittling away at the credibility of my argument. In cases like this I'm always trying to portray these guys honestly and not say, 'Poor Rolando Cruz, plucked from his pew at church while praying and put on death row.' That's not true. Nor is it true that Girvies Davis is an innocent man, quote unquote."

At this point in the argument, says Zorn, having established the cost inefficiency of the death penalty and his own tough-on-crime credentials, "I want to introduce the possibility of executing an innocent person. That's where the whole Rolando Cruz series of columns came in."

Rolando Cruz was sentenced to death for one of the most heinous and highly publicized murders in the Chicago area. Ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, home from school with the flu one day in 1983, was abducted, brutally raped, and murdered, her body left in a nearby wooded area. Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez told police "demonstrably false tales about the murder in what their lawyers have since said was a misguided attempt to be heroes and snag the $10,000 reward money offered in the case,"wrote Zorn.

Though Cruz has been convicted twice for the murder (as has Hernandez, sentenced to 80 years), after the first trial another killer named Brian Dugan confessed that he alone murdered Jeanine. Dugan confessed to Jeanine's murder and several more rapes and murders after being arrested for the 1985 abduction, rape, and murder of seven-year-old Melissa Ackerman in Somonauk.

Du Page County prosecutors first insisted Dugan was lying, then said Dugan acted with Cruz and Hernandez. They refused Dugan's demand for immunity from the death penalty in order to testify at Cruz's second trial, so the jury only heard about the confession secondhand. The jury also did not hear about Dugan's other similar crimes, including the Ackerman murder, because prosecutors argued successfully to exclude that information.

Dugan's confession, the lack of physical evidence or eyewitnesses against Cruz, and a host of inconsistencies have led three officials to quit their jobs rather than continue working on Cruz's prosecution--a Du Page County crime laboratory director, a Du Page sheriff's detective, and an Illinois assistant attorney general. Prominent government and community leaders have filed briefs on Cruz's behalf--a group of former prosecutors including the former head of the Illinois State Police, Jeremy Margolis, and a former Illinois attorney general, Tyrone Fahner; a group of religious leaders including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; and a group of Illinois law school deans.

Zorn began his series on Cruz on February 6, 1994. The Illinois Supreme Court had already heard arguments to consider overturning Cruz's second conviction, and the court's decision was expected soon. Zorn says he picked the Cruz case because his appeal was under consideration, because the death penalty would soon become a big issue as more death row inmates began to be executed, and because he wanted to address the case's treatment by Roland Burris, then Illinois attorney general and running for governor, and Jim Ryan, then Du Page County state's attorney and running for attorney general.

Burris's conduct in the Cruz case, says Zorn, "was just appalling, just spineless, and showed a complete lack of character. And I thought that was relevant, considering that he wanted to be governor. And Jim Ryan, our new attorney general, I thought his conduct was inexcusable and very dubious also."

Burris's office handled the Cruz case for its second hearing before the Illinois Supreme Court. The assistant attorney general assigned to write the prosecution's brief instead wrote Burris a letter, saying she could not "in good conscience" put her name on such a brief. She was removed from the case, and resigned two days later. Burris insisted it was none of his business whether Cruz was guilty or not, that his job was to uphold a jury's verdict. Zorn devoted one entire column to Burris, quoting both the American Bar Association and the U.S. Supreme Court on a prosecutor's duty to seek justice. Zorn called Burris's position "a hollow political dodge."

Ryan came in for much more frequent barbs. Zorn criticized Ryan's office most strenuously, perhaps, for its refusal to grant Dugan's demand for immunity from the death penalty in order to testify at Cruz's second trial and for a statement Cruz allegedly gave police about a "vision" of the murder. Police mysteriously took no notes of the "vision statement," and the prosecution announced its existence less than a week before Cruz's first trial. In column after column, Zorn also picked apart other aspects of the case, such as the prosecution's witnesses--one of whom told Zorn in an interview that he had lied when he said Cruz had told him he'd been present at Nicarico's murder.

In a July 15, 1994, column noting that the Illinois Supreme Court had overturned Cruz's second conviction, Zorn laid out numerous changes in the state's case between Cruz's first and second trials, and repeatedly wondered which version the state would present in a third trial. "And as much as it might be entertaining to watch Ryan's minions try again to make a fair trial out of so much nonsense, two chances are enough for any prosecutor's office, especially under these circumstances," wrote Zorn. "Ryan has too much of his reputation and political future tied up in this case to be an objective seeker of the truth any longer."

Ryan declined to comment for this article, but Joseph Birkett, who is chief of the criminal division of the Du Page County state's attorney's office and is leading the prosecution in Cruz's upcoming third trial, defended Ryan and his other colleagues. While Birkett said he cannot comment on the facts of the case, he calls the July 15 column "one long dirty shot." He defended the integrity of various prosecutors singled out in Zorn's columns, adding bitterly, "and he reduces us to minions."

Zorn says the column crisply laid out "the inconsistencies and falsehoods in the various stories the prosecutors have presented as fact to various juries in the Cruz case." The questions he asked in that column, he says, "would not have seemed like an attack to a prosecutor's office that had good answers for them.

"I really didn't have any plans to write that many columns [on Cruz], it just kind of got going," Zorn recalls. "It was like writing a serial novel. You'd write it, you can't go back and change what you'd already done, and I was deathly afraid of making a mistake. The whole thing would crumble if Jim Ryan called a news conference and said, 'Zorn says A, but here's B.' So I was really meticulous. I had two trial transcripts, boxes and boxes of stuff."

"You're used to getting calls from reporters who say, I need a paper to confirm XYZ," says Cruz's appeals lawyer, Larry Marshall. "Eric called and said, 'I need all the transcripts on the Cruz case.' And Eric read it all. And that was to me the kind of investment and research that most journalists just frankly don't put into a story, and Eric insisted on doing it."

For Zorn, Cruz is the epitome of an innocent person railroaded by the justice system. "We have an imperfect system of justice. I think we have a good system of justice in this country, I'm not baggin' on it, I'm just saying that it screws up. We know it screws up," he says. "And that's why you have the whole appellate system, because judges make mistakes, prosecutors make mistakes, jurors make mistakes, legal mistakes and literal mistakes. One of the jurors in the first Cruz trial was very repentant about how he was bullied into voting guilty, he regrets that now, and so on. And so it happens."

In fact, the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Service documented 52 death row inmates exonerated and released since 1970 for a subcommittee report to the House Judiciary Committee. And while death penalty advocates often claim there would be a deterrent effect if the appeals process was sped up, "the faster you speed it up the more errors you're gonna have," says Zorn. "You'd end up killing more innocent people.

"Cruz is probably going to be exonerated this year or next year," says Zorn. "He will not ever be made whole, but he'll have a chance to get his life back. He'll have lost about 15 years of his life. We take that risk every time we imprison someone, that we're imprisoning the wrong person. There's a payoff to that risk, though," he says, since in most cases the public is protected from dangerous criminals. "But with the death penalty you get nothing else--the same degree of safety is achieved and there's nothing to be gained.

"Now the question for me is what role I'm going to play when the trial unfolds again," Zorn muses. "I guess it'll be the same thing where I'll be taking a critical look at things that are going on, because I expect it to be just as bad, this trial. Du Page is already trying to roust out new witnesses, basically people who say they've heard Cruz say things about the trial. Because that's the only thing they've got."

The Girvies Davis case is so complex, so daunting, that Davis's lawyer, David Schwartz, says he's talked to reporters who "elected not to do a story rather than try to do the legwork well." Zorn, he says, was the opposite. "He realized it was complicated and that just made him work harder to make sure he knew the facts of the case he was writing about," says Schwartz.

Northwestern journalism professor David Protess agrees that aside from Zorn the mainstream media isn't covering the Davis case. "I think that's because of the way journalists cover death cases," he says. "Their coverage begins almost on the eve of execution, and the focus is on the process of execution and on the angst of the victims' families, and not any larger issues of capital punishment or the possibility that we're executing the wrong guy. That doesn't happen often, but when it happens, and I think it's happening in the Girvies Davis case, it's very important for the press to take up the case."

"I never particularly intended the Davis case to be my story," says Zorn. "I wanted to open the dialogue on it. I feel like my voice on it is weakened actually, because of my stand on capital punishment....

I'm actually not the best guy to be doing this stuff, it's just that I don't know if anyone is going to pick up on this unless it's to take a contrary view. At this point, I'm expecting that to happen."

And so it has--Pat Gauen, a columnist for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote in support of Davis's execution last week and disparagingly noted that a "Chicago Tribune columnist has taken up Davis' case of late, suggesting that Davis is a changed man, a new minister of some sort who doesn't deserve to die for a murder he insists he did not commit."

In fact, Zorn addressed Davis's rehabilitation in prison in only one column out of five. The bulk of Zorn's columns deals with problems in the scanty evidence against Davis, and emphasizes that Davis's execution will be the first in Illinois since capital punishment resumed in which the defendant's guilt can be doubted by sane people. Davis's execution, Zorn wrote in one column, "will mark the beginning of a new, sloppy, mistake-tolerant era for the death penalty in Illinois."

Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of 89-year-old Charles Biebel near downstate Belleville. In 1978, Biebel's assailants robbed him in his trailer home and shot him. Davis admits his part in two other robberies where victims were killed, though he denies being the killer, and received prison sentences for those crimes. He was in custody for one of those robberies when police say he confessed to involvement in the Biebel murder, along with a stack of other area crimes. Zorn has concentrated on two main points: the dubious quality of the confessions, and whether the death penalty is appropriate even if the Biebel murder confession is true.

The confessions are suspect for several reasons. Davis was an illiterate who could only write his own name, but police say he gave them a handwritten list of confessed crimes. The confessions he later signed were written by police. Of those 11 confessions, wrote Zorn, "two are acknowledged by all to be generally accurate, four--including the Biebel confession--are murky and disputed, and five are almost certainly false." Davis recanted the confessions four days later, and several of the crimes were later proved to have been committed by others.

In addition, Davis claims police pulled him out of his cell late at night and gave him a choice between trying to escape, implying they would kill him, or signing the confessions. The odd timing of the police interrogation lends credence to that story, Zorn notes, since police say Davis offered to confess on a Sunday morning, but they waited until the middle of the night to drive Davis around to the crime scenes and get the confessions on paper.

But what if Davis's confession in the Biebel case is true nonetheless? According to the confession, wrote Zorn, Davis told police he was outside Biebel's trailer loading the stolen goods when his accomplice killed Biebel. That makes Davis "technically eligible for the death penalty as an accessory to a murder committed in the course of another felony," wrote Zorn, but even many people who favor the death penalty do so "because they believe that certain crimes so insult, degrade and terrorize human society that the ultimate punishment of the undoubtedly guilty is the only suitable commensurate response. Girvies Davis' role in the murder of Charles Biebel--the only crime for which he is condemned to die--does not come close to this threshold."

"Looking at the evidence, I don't have any idea [if he did it]," says Zorn. "His lawyers don't have any idea. And I don't think the prosecutors have any idea whether he really did this. They think he might. But he tells a very plausible story, and he's gonna go to his death at the hands of Illinois insisting, swearing, that he did not commit this crime for which they're executing him. When you have that kind of doubt, shouldn't you play it safe? What is to be lost by keeping him in prison when you just can't be sure?"

In the last two weeks, Davis has garnered some publicity apart from Zorn's columns. He recently became the first death row inmate to post his protestations of innocence on the Internet, and he was scheduled to speak by phone on Milt Rosenberg's WGN program, Extension 720, on April 25, but the prison phones went dead just before the 9 PM start time. In a subsequent column, Zorn quoted Department of Corrections spokesman Nic Howell insisting the phones go off every night at that time, though Zorn listed phone calls Davis had made even later in the evening. Last week Davis phoned in successfully to Jay Marvin's WLS show, in which Zorn also participated.

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and several others have filed a federal lawsuit against DOC officials for their interference with press access to Davis, who isn't allowed visits with reporters--"visits we've had with other death row inmates," Zorn noted.

"The last thing I wanted to do was overstate his innocence," Zorn says, referring to his appearance on the Marvin show. "I said as many times as I could, I'm not saying let this guy out of prison, or give him a Nobel Peace Prize, I just don't think he should be killed. I think if you do, then there are basically no standards--killing him for the Biebel murder when the evidence is one tainted confession. And if that's all you need to be guilty, it's gonna be easier to kill your Rolando Cruzes of the world.

"I just think if we're going to have capital punishment, that the standards should be very, very exacting," says Zorn. "We should be goddamn sure someone is really guilty of a terrible affront to civilization and humanity before we take his life."

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

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