Rolando Cruz, center, in front of the DuPage County Courthouse in 1999 Credit: AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser

Eric Zorn noted the other day that Monday marks the 30th anniversary of his arrival in the pages of the Tribune as a columnist. Zorn counted his blessings.

“Several times a week,” he wrote, “I get to have a moment on what is still one of the greatest stages in America to try to provoke, amuse, challenge, touch, infuriate, comfort, advise or otherwise entertain a huge audience. I get to offer my reaction in a popular print and online forum to the most important news in the world or to the odd little thing that just happened to me.”

But this is the opportunity open to every columnist, including the windbags and charlatans who shed tears on cue and champion every cause their inbox guarantees will be a winner. What sets Zorn apart is what he made of his platform after he got it.

In February 1994 Zorn began writing columns on behalf of Rolando Cruz, a young man who’d been sitting on death row since 1985 for a crime he didn’t commit: the 1983 rape and murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville. Codefendant Alex Hernandez was serving a sentence of 80 years in prison. The case had attracted plenty of attention already, and a Zorn column allowing that aspects of it were “troubling” and merited a “closer look” because the “stakes were so high” could have come and gone like a midnight bus at a stop sign. 

But Zorn dug in. He mastered the case file and sicced logic and common sense on prosecutor Jim Ryan’s case for executing Cruz. The case fell apart. “This case is not about technicalities; it’s about a massive miscarriage of justice, blatant misrepresentations to the jury,” Zorn told us then. “The whole story is so overwhelming. In a column 800 words at a time, I can bite off one thing, make a point with it, and bite off another.”

In his first five weeks on the case, Zorn wrote 13 columns. In the next 20 months, many more would follow. His relentlessness made people uncomfortable, other journalists included. Columnists were expected to sprinkle their sympathies liberally among life’s woes, rather than focus on a single outrage and actually presume to undo it. What about all the other poor, innocent bastards on death row who don’t have anybody writing about them? a colleague asked me then. Zorn told me somebody snickered on an online bulletin board, “Is every columnist going to get his favorite martyr out of jail?”

Zorn’s own editorial page didn’t champion his cause. Zorn wrote that Jim Ryan, then the DuPage County state’s attorney, “paraded thieves, liars and bumbling lawmen in front of the jury in lieu of real evidence implicating Cruz.” He “unashamedly and successfully fought to prevent them from hearing cold hard facts that might well have exonerated him.” The editorial page endorsed Ryan for the Republican nomination for attorney general because “he has a commendable record from his decade as the top prosecutor in DuPage.” That November, Ryan won the office.

But in 1995 Cruz and Hernandez were exonerated and sent home. Then something remarkable happened. Don Wycliff, editor of the Tribune editorial page, who’d bitten his lip and gone along with the decision to endorse Ryan, let his disgust get the better of him. He came into his office one Sunday and banged out an editorial that he published the next day without clearing it with anyone.

“The threadbare nature of the state’s case was obvious long ago to anyone who read the powerful, passionate work of Tribune columnist Eric Zorn,” wrote Wycliff. Zorn had performed “in the noblest tradition of journalism,” but it was “not enough to praise the heroes. Those who did wrong or were derelict also must be held to account.” 

At the top of Wycliff’s list was Jim Ryan, who “needs to explain why getting a conviction was more important to him than getting justice.” Wycliff went on: “One thing is clear: None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust.”

“The earlier editorial [endorsing Ryan] reflected a consensus view of things,” Wycliff told me. “The last one reflected my view of things.”

In 2002, Wycliff having by then moved on to the post of public editor, the Tribune endorsed Ryan for governor. (Ryan lost.) Wycliff’s successor, Bruce Dold, who told me he’d “strongly disagreed” with Wycliff’s editorial because “it left no room for redemption,” said at the time that Ryan showed signs of having learned from his mistakes even though he’d never actually apologized for them. Wycliff told me he had no regrets.

Today Wycliff is long gone, Dold is editor of the Tribune, and Zorn still writes his column (and blog). I can’t think of Zorn without thinking of the saga I just outlined, and I can’t think of Zorn without admiring him.