Nov 1 2007

Enabling False Convictions

Exoneration coverage overlooks media role

“The science of DNA on Monday cleared the 200th person wrongfully convicted of a crime in the United States, a record that demands that the criminal justice system fix its serious flaws,” editorialized the Philadelphia Inquirer (4/25/07), after Jerry Miller of Illinois became an American exoneration milestone.

As milestones often do, Miller’s exoneration gave the press an easy “news peg” to report on DNA testing and the troubled U.S. criminal justice system. And report they did. Most major news organizations filed at least one piece on Miller’s exoneration, with some editorializing for significant reform and others raising specific questions about the way in which “justice” is handed down in this country.

The Washington Post (5/3/07), for example, raised questions about the racial skew of rape exonerations–those cleared are disproportionately black men accused of sexually assaulting white women–and touched on reforms in police and prosecutorial work being made in some jurisdictions, such as taping police confessions and interrogations, relying less on police lineups and focusing on DNA testing if possible, rather than the notoriously faulty eyewitness identification.

The Post is just one example of the ample coverage that surrounded the 200th DNA-based exoneration. Stories appeared in the New York Times (5/20/07), USA Today (4/23/07) and in scores of papers nationwide via the Associated Press (4/23/07), as well as on CBS (4/24/07), ABC (4/27/07), PBS (5/6/07) and NPR (4/22/07, 4/24/07).

What is striking about all of the coverage, both of Jerry Miller and of wrongful conviction in general, is the lack of self-examination. The press, in detailing the reasons that such awful miscarriages of justice happen, never points to its own role as enabler.

This lack of humility has consequences. By refusing to admit its own culpability in the conviction of innocent people, the press sets the stage for the same mistakes to happen over and over. In examining the coverage of one relatively high-profile case in Chicago, we see reportorial problems that illustrate what we’ve learned about how and why innocent citizens get convicted in the first place.

While the man in this case has not been exonerated and may be guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, when it comes to the press’ behavior, that should not matter. As FAIR has written (Extra! Update, 10/96), “Journalists are not psychics, and they should not be gamblers, betting that the outcome of a story will vindicate them.” If red flags are raised in a trial, it is the press’ duty to fully explore them, armed with the knowledge of past errors. It is in this regard where the press continues to fail.

‘A terrifying crime of humiliation’

In the early morning hours of May 24, 2002, a man reportedly raped a woman who was working in Chicago’s Daley Center. An hour later, Carl Chatman, a homeless veteran, was stopped and detained by the Chicago police. Around noon of that day, the victim identified him in a lineup. The next morning, Chatman dictated a statement to police confessing to the rape. Twenty months later, he was convicted, and a little over a month after that, in March 2004, Carl Chatman was sentenced to the maximum of 30 years in prison, where he remains today as his family and advocates fight his battle in the courts.

In many ways, Chatman’s case fits the profile of a wrongful conviction, as outlined by the Innocence Project, the national organization “dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system” (, and by University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett (Columbia Law Review, 1/08). But rightly or wrongly convicted, the reporting of his case by Chicago’s two daily newspapers leaves much to be desired.

As is often the case in the coverage of trials, both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times favored the prosecution’s framing of events and did not raise appropriate questions–or even quote the defense raising such questions–about eyewitness identification and misidentification, false and coerced confessions, and a lack of solid scientific evidence.

Police and prosecutors’ version

From the get-go, Chicago’s two dailies gave the public the “official” version of what happened in the Daley Center. As usual, these claims were qualified by “officials say,” “allegedly,” “authorities said” and other terms to signify that the newspapers weren’t making these claims independently, nor did they endorse them.

But is tacking on a modifier really sufficient? Is adding “allegedly” to this sentence (Chicago Sun-Times, 5/26/02) enough to make the public realize that this is only what the police claim?

A homeless man accused of sexually assaulting a woman inside the Daley Center entered the building Thursday afternoon and stayed there overnight, hiding in a bathroom before moving to a courtroom where he slept under a bench.

When other versions of events are ignored or marginalized, it is not.

An analysis of the two papers’ news coverage of the trial and sentencing of Carl Chatman shows a heavy reliance on “official” sources, which can be a problem in and of itself. (See Extra!, 5=6/03; Extra! Update, 2/04.)

In three stories (1/29/04, 1/30/04, 3/5/04), the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a total of 34 paragraphs, 18 of which–more than half–were dominated by viewpoints or quotes from the prosecution or the victim. The jurors or the judge dominated four paragraphs, and nine paragraphs were told in the writer’s voice and had no dominant viewpoint. Meanwhile, the defense only dominated three paragraphs, one in each story. (The SunTimes did have a columnist, Mary Mitchell, whose columns gave a very different view of the case–see sidebar.)

The Tribune‘s coverage wasn’t any more balanced. They also produced three stories (1/29/04, 1/30/04, 3/5/04), with a total of 32 paragraphs. The Tribune was actually more skewed, with 70 percent (22.5) of the paragraphs dominated by the views and quotes of the victim and prosecution. The judge dominated 2.5 paragraphs, and four were neutral. Again, the defense dominated only one paragraph per story, for a total of 3.

The problem of such a reliance on police and prosecutors to tell the official version of events becomes even clearer when we examine the substance of the views left out of the coverage. Questions about eyewitness misidentification, a coerced confession and a lack of solid scientific evidence–frequently signs of wrongful convictions–all played heavily in the defense of Chatman at trial. But by giving the most minimal space possible to defense claims, these issues were never fully explored or explained in print.

Eyewitness misidentification

Both Garrett’s study and the Innocence Project cite eyewitness misidentification as “the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide.” In the 200 cases Garrett examined, 79 percent of the exonerees were convicted based on eyewitness testimony.

As the defense pointed out in its closing statements at trial, the Carl Chatman case was “really about identification.” The prosecution’s case rested heavily on the testimony of the victim, who had picked Chatman out of a lineup the day of the attack. It was the highlight of the trial’s first day, and became the centerpiece of the papers’ reports the next day. “I Have a Husband. Please Don’t Hurt Me,” the bold headline read in the SunTimes (1/29/04). The Tribune (1/29/04) went for the less-sensational “Victim Tells Jury of Rape Near Court,” but the content of the stories was remarkably similar.

Both the SunTimes and the Tribune essentially retold the victim’s account of the crime, in all its detail, with very few opportunities for dissenting voices–in this case, the defense–to get a word in edgewise. The high drama of the victim’s testimony far overshadowed sketchy details about the initial identification, like how the victim knew for certain it was Chatman who had assaulted her. “Specifically, she remembered Chatman’s red-and-black parka,” the SunTimes reported in the fourth-to-last paragraph. The Tribune noted “she remembered him as the man she had helped because he was wearing a red Chicago Blackhawks jacket.” But wouldn’t a Blackhawks parka be a popular fashion item in the Windy City, one that might be worn by many other black men? More importantly, the papers failed to mention that the jacket was about all she could identify that tied him to the crime.

The papers also declined to note that the victim was the only one who could identify Chatman. According to her testimony, Chatman had come into the building and met her several days prior to the assault, and then came back and waited specifically for her. Yet the two other witnesses called could not positively identify Chatman as the man who came in before the assault.

Under questioning, the victim understandably said that the physical and mental stress she was under during the attack kept her from making a more detailed description of the perpetrator. But couldn’t this same stress have made it more difficult to correctly pick her assailant out of a lineup just five hours after the attack? It’s not a question the SunTimes or Tribune wanted to ask.

False confessions

Sixteen percent of the cases Garrett studied featured false confessions. The Innocence Project reports that “in more than 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.” The mentally impaired, who make up 35 percent of those who falsely confessed, are especially susceptible to falsely confessing to a crime they did not commit, “because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures,” according to the Innocence Project.

In the hours after the Chicago Police picked up Carl Chatman, he remained in police custody for the rest of the day and overnight. After numerous “informal conversations” and a trip to the crime scene, all led by police and state attorneys, Chatman gave a statement on May 25, 2002 at 10:25 a.m.–over 24 hours after he was taken into custody.

In the cross-examination of Illinois assistant state’s attorney Brian Holmes, numerous red flags were raised about Chatman’s statement. Though Holmes initially referred to it as “a handwritten statement,” he then admitted that he was the one who actually wrote the statement, and that he neglected to document his part of the conversation–the questions.

In addition, Holmes told the court that none of his three conversations with Chatman were taped, and that he had no notes from the first two.

These facts alone should have raised a few reporters’ eyebrows about the nature of the confession. Add in the factor of Chatman’s mental state and his statement begins to look even more dubious.

Under Illinois law, an IQ of 75 or below is considered evidence of mental retardation. A diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with a history of suicide attempts, Carl Chatman was found by court doctors to have an IQ of 68. Speaking with a court doctor, Chatman said that “at first he told the police he didn’t do it, but that the police only believed him when he admitted to committing the crime…. He said that the police never specifically promised him anything if he signed the statement, but he was afraid that he would be beaten if he didn’t.”

Yet there was scant mention in the city’s two dailies of Chatman’s mental deficiencies and the question this raised about the reliability of his confession. When his mental state was presented at all, it was in the context of the prosecution negating its import.

‘A little bit mental’

For its part, the Tribune decided to steer clear of the issue in its two reports from the trial. And only in the second of two reports from the trial did the SunTimes broach the subject.

After a quote from a juror who said she hoped Chatman received the maximum sentence, but also said, “I kind of get the impression he’s a little bit mental,” the SunTimes wrote (1/30/04):

Defense attorney Thomas Brandstrader focused in on that point in his closing argument Thursday. He asked jurors to consider that just 24 hours after Chatman confessed to investigators, he was in a psychological ward in the Cook County Jail…. But prosecutors…said claims that Chatman’s confession came from the mind of a mentally ill man are nonsense. “This is not some crazy lunatic who is babbling nonsense,” said Cook County assistant state’s attorney Jake Rubinstein.

In the SunTimes‘ story on Chatman’s sentencing (3/5/04), the paper again referenced his mental health, but by this point, it was an afterthought, as that story’s headline (“Judge Nails Office Rapist With Maximum Sentence”) clearly illustrated. The last paragraph, seemingly tacked on in a weak attempt for balance, noted that “Chatman’s defense attorney, Thomas Brandstrader, asked [Cook County Judge Michael] Toomin to consider his client’s mental health and lack of criminal history.”

The Tribune‘s report on the sentencing (3/5/04) was very similar in this regard, with a sentence near the end of the story saying Brandstrader “had asked the judge to consider … the fact that [Chatman] has mental-health problems.”

The lack of questioning by reporters in this case about the confession is strange at best, given the evidence presented. But it is especially jarring given the Tribune‘s own 4,500- word special investigative report in 2001 (12/16/01) detailing the way police in Chicago and Cook County used “coercive and illegal tactics” and “substitut[ed] interrogation for thorough investigation” to gain confessions from people who didn’t commit the crimes being investigated. It was even noted in the story that Cook County “has taken steps to enhance the reliability of confessions, including videotaping many confessions.”

Why didn’t the Tribune reporter assigned to the Chatman case use the paper’s institutional memory and bring the issue of the possibly shaky confession to light?

Faulty science

In Chatman’s case, there was no DNA evidence presented, nor was there any other physical evidence to tie him to the victim–no saliva, no hair, no semen, no blood–despite the numerous items collected from the crime scene. Yet the prosecution still presented a handful of scientific experts to testify in the trial. Even though all of them ultimately said they found no conclusive evidence, the presence of science coupled with an over-explanation of scientific procedures may have been enough to at least confuse the jury as to whether any scientific evidence existed. It certainly seemed to fool the press.

The Tribune reported the issue of physical evidence in the “he-said, she-said” paradigm. In its first trial story (1/29/04), the Tribune tacked on a last-paragraph afterthought: “Defense attorney Thomas Brandstrader told jurors no physical evidence links his client to the crime.” The next day, the Tribune brought up the lack of evidence again, saying that Chatman’s “defense had argued there was no physical evidence” linking him to the crime. It was a clear fact of the trial that no physical evidence was presented to link Chatman, as clear as the other facts presented in the Tribune‘s reports without qualification (length of jury deliberation, Chatman’s age, etc.), yet the paper still sourced it to “his defense.”

The SunTimes at least seemingly admitted that there was no physical evidence, but much like with Chatman’s mental illness, the paper briefly touched on it only to step aside and let the prosecution get the last word on the subject. “[Defense attorney Thomas] Brandstrader also reminded jurors there was no physical evidence tying Chatman to the crime. But prosecutors told jurors not to be distracted by the lack of physical evidence, specifically any sperm,” the SunTimes reported (1/30/04).

Who ‘failed to notice’?

As noted earlier, we cannot say if Carl Chatman is guilty or innocent of the crime for which he sits in prison. But as a core ideal of our democracy, we can all agree that he deserved a fair trial. This is where the responsibility of the media comes in.

As the press has repeatedly reported in the past decade, the accused don’t always get a fair trial, and many have been convicted and sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. Doesn’t it then make sense for journalists to report on the cops and the courts with that awareness in mind?

It is a welcome sign that the press extends its conscience enough to report quite often on wrongful convictions, exonerations and the flaws with the criminal justice system. But the press needs to take responsibility and think about these lessons when doing daily beat reporting on crime and trials.

As the New York Times wrote about Brandon Garrett’s study (7/23/07): “In each case, of course, the evidence used to convict them was at least flawed and often false–yet juries, trial judges and appellate courts failed to notice.” But in the Carl Chatman case, as in other cases around the country, those weren’t the only institutions that “failed to notice.”

Jon Whiten, a former FAIR intern, is a freelance writer and editor based in Jersey City, N.J.