The dailies sure got excited on Wednesday. The story posted online at the Sun-Times was headlined “Alleged Burge victim target of federal probe / City drops bombshell at hearing.” And in the online Tribune: “City reveals federal probe of freed Death Row inmate / Hobley under investigation in 1987 fatal fire as lawsuit against Chicago lingers.” 

What the Tribune called a “bizarre twist” came as the City Council’s Finance Committee decided to table for two weeks discussion of the settlement being negotiated between Chicago and three former Death Row inmates exonerated by Governor Ryan on grounds their confessions were false and tortured out of them. The three  — Madison Hobley is one — then sued the city. The plaintiffs thought they had a $14.8 million deal months ago, but the city never presented it to the City Council for approval. Some furious aldermen intended to speak up Wednesday and demand the city stop paying private attorneys millions of dollars to handle the suits and just pay the money.

But Alderman Ed Smith asked for a postponement. And corporation counsel Mara Georges suggested that one reason the city’s been moving slowly is that the feds are taking a second look at the 1987 fire for which Hobley was convicted of murder. Said the Tribune: “Georges released a letter from the No. 2 official in the U.S. attorney’s office [saying] that the Justice Department [is] investigating the events surrounding the fire that killed seven people.”

Both papers bit, posting stories that don’t make any sense. U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has been begged by lawyers and other partisans of the former inmates to find a way to get around the statute of limitations and prosecute Jon Burge, the disgraced former police commander who was tossed off the force for misconduct in 1993, and men under him named as abusers in the accounts of dozens of former suspects. Why would Fitzgerald reopen a 21-year-old case against a torture victim in which no apparent federal crime was committed and in which double jeopardy is an obvious barrier?

Sure, Fitzgerald might be looking at that arson fire and the police work surrounding it. But not because his quarry is Hobley. That letter Georges spoke of was written by first assistant U.S. attorney Gary Shapiro, and I understand that Hobley’s name doesn’t even appear in it. Some angry aldermen have wondered for some time if they were getting a straight story from Georges, and there’s obviously more to this one. For background, read John Conroy’s latest posting on this page. It’s unusual for the press to be so credulous.