It seems fitting that my last major story for the Reader (at least for now) is one I’ve been working on for about half of my time here. I first wrote about James Allen for the May 24, 2018, issue, but that story, which was about a fifth of the length of this one, barely scratched the surface of all that’s happened to him since the 1960s. About 400 of the 27,300 men and women incarcerated in Illinois are over the age of 70. Allen’s one of just 93 people in this age group doing life. It costs about $70,000 a year to keep him in a maximum-security prison. The state would have us believe that this is for your safety and mine.
While working on this story, I was scrutinizing two James Allens—a man my own age in thousands of pages of court documents, and a man old enough to be my grandfather on the phone line. Journalism about criminal cases focuses principally on accusations, and to a lesser degree on trials (if they seem exciting enough to reporters), but we rarely encounter people on the other end of the sentences our courts impose. Part of the reason is because a crime story can be told in as few as 250 words, while the story of a conviction may require 25,000 words to unravel. When I spoke with other journalists who’ve written about wrongful convictions they would often casually mention that I’d probably never know what really happened. They’d also say things like “you don’t want to spend all this time on a story if he actually did it.”
But the longer I worked to pick apart James Allen’s cases, the less it mattered to me whether or not he had anything to do with the murders he was convicted of. Instead, I was increasingly astonished by how little it took to make people believe that he had. Before DNA, and ubiquitous cameras, and the Internet, criminal cases were often built entirely on stories—claims about what happened made by cops, victims, witnesses, and defendants. All of Allen’s trials were ultimately credibility contests. Credibility is a deeply subjective and fickle instrument for measuring the truth, and yet it’s integral to our criminal legal apparatus. Who and what the public is willing to believe has shifted over the decades of Allen’s incarceration. He, however, is stuck in a perpetual battle with what law enforcement, jurors, judges, and lawyers found credible some 40 years ago. Journalists have historically amplified the state’s bizarre stories about Allen—it feels like high time to take stock of his stories about the state. v