A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men.

A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men. – book reviews

Preston Lerner

In a nation where the fear of crime is more prevalent than crime itself, capital punishment is a growth industry. Nearly 3,400 Americans reside on death rows, and their numbers increase daily despite our declining murder rate. More than 400 inmates have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment a quarter-century ago. Last year alone, the death toll was 74–a modern record.

Although capital punishment may be justified in particularly heinous cases, even its strongest supporters can’t help but worry about the possibility of executing an innocent person. And while mistakes are rare, no fewer than 75 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. Add to this dozens of hapless victims–Sacco and Vanzetti, to name the most notorious example–whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A Promise of Justice, the latest entry in the subgenre of miscarriage-of-justice chronicles, documents a crime that horrified suburban Chicago in 1978: A white couple was abducted from a gas station and driven to the decaying black neighborhood of Ford Heights. There, the woman was raped, and she and her fiance were killed. Four black men with no history of violent crime were arrested after a perfunctory police investigation. All were convicted of murder, and two were sentenced to death, largely on the basis of testimony that was later recanted. In a supreme irony, the “eyewitness” who recanted was charged with perjury for telling the truth.

Written by David Protess, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and former Chicago Lawyer editor/publisher Robert Warden, the book recounts the authors’ 15-year struggle to free the so-called Ford Heights Four. Their doggedness in the face of repeated disappointment is inspirational. Stories in the muckraking Chicago Lawyer prompted new trials. After a second set of convictions, Protess enlisted the aid of his journalism students. In the end, this ragtag collection of amateur investigators not only proved the innocence of the Ford Heights Four but also wrangled confessions out of the real killers.

This is great stuff, and it ought to make for compelling reading. Unfortunately, the book falls short both as entertainment and prescription. While A Promise of Justice is a shining illustration of the power of an unfettered press, it also spotlights the failings of conventional, resolutely objective journalism in an age when celebrity is measured in minutes and attention spans in seconds. With its clipped rhythms, shorthand descriptions, and one-sentence paragraphs, the book reads like a 241-page newspaper feature. Scenes lack a sense of place. Characters rarely come to life. TV producers could (and probably will) turn this tale into a sweeps-week docudrama. Oliver Stone would transform it into an indictment of the entire legal profession. But Protess and Warden, determined not to sensationalize, give us facts when we want drama.

To their credit, the authors scrupulously avoid glorifying themselves. But as a result, the book has no central hero. Nor, for that matter, does it have any real villain. Early on, Dennis Williams, lingering on death row, blames his predicament on “power-tripping racists” Clearly, there was a rush to judgment, and it’s doubtful that the death penalty would have been sought if the victims had been black. But the case for racism being the cause of this miscarriage of justice is never made beyond a reasonable doubt.

Readers will come away with contempt for the police, who botched the investigation, and the prosecutors, whose performance was at best overzealous. But the “evidence” against the Ford Heights Four seems so marginal that any competent defense attorneys should have been able to win an acquittal. The defendants were convicted twice largely because they were represented by attorneys who possessed neither the skill nor the experience to try capital cases. Three of them, in fact, would have their licenses to practice law suspended.

Here was the perfect opportunity for Protess and Warden to broaden their perspective from one courthouse in Illinois to death rows across the country. Other than the death penalty itself, no issue vexes critics of capital punishment more than the specter of inadequate representation. Because defendants in capital cases are disproportionately black, often indigent, they are rarely represented by trial wizards and legal scholars. And in an adversarial system based on the notion that justice is the product of a clash between evenly matched advocates, second-rate representation can translate–literally–into a death sentence.

But the authors choose to limit themselves to the particular rather than the universal. Instead of offering suggestions for preventing more miscarriages of justice, they close their account with the Ford Heights Four’s predictably troubled return to civilian life. And so it’s left to Dennis Williams–the voice of bitter experience–to propose a plan of his own to “restore justice to our criminal justice system” Speaking to legislators in Washington, Williams strikes a note of passion that’s oddly lacking in a book that should overflow with outrage. But perhaps Protess and Warden expended all their anger where it mattered–fighting the good fight. Before they were authors, first they were heroes. Rarely has the pen seemed mightier.

Preston Lerner is a Los Angeles-based journalist.

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