Sun-Times Keeps a Secret

If you believe with all your heart that David Dowaliby did not kill his daughter and no stone should be left unturned until he’s freed, you are likely to conclude that the conduct of the Chicago Sun-Times last year was unconscionable.

But if you, like most of us, don’t know what to believe, you might dismiss the behavior of the newspaper as just a troubling footnote to a strange and troubling crime.

For as we all now know, the matter that the Sun-Times chose to keep to itself would not have cleared David Dowaliby’s name. It would not have overturned his conviction. It probably would not have shortened his sentence by a day.

It was merely something Dowaliby’s lawyers would like to have known about–but didn’t.

What the lawyers didn’t know, even as they were asking Judge Richard Neville for a lenient sentence, was that a prison inmate wanted to testify that he’d heard someone else all but admit to killing Jaclyn Dowaliby. The Sun-Times had already interviewed the inmate.

What was the Sun-Times doing with its exclusive knowledge? Nothing. The Sun-Times decided that the story it had heard from Gerald Baumann, an inmate at the Joliet Correctional Center, didn’t hold up. So the Sun-Times treated Baumann like newspapers are always treating dubious tipsters. They kissed him off.

Jaclyn Dowaliby disappeared from her Midlothian home in September 1988. Her body was found in a field in nearby Blue Island four days later. Last May 3, a day after Judge Neville acquitted Jaclyn’s mother, Cynthia, a jury convicted David Dowaliby of murder. Baumann, who’s 20, had just been moved to Joliet from the Cook County Jail to serve a 25-year sentence for armed robbery and attempted murder. He read about the conviction in the papers and wrote Rosalind Rossi, who’d covered the Dowaliby trial for the Sun-Times. According to Baumann, Rossi came out and tape-recorded an interview that lasted more than an hour.

We don’t know exactly what Baumann told Rossi, because Rossi never wrote a story. But here’s Baumann’s account, as his lawyers described it months later in a petition to Judge Neville:

On or about February 15, 1990, Baumann was lifting weights in the Division One yard at Cook County Jail. Nearby were a group of Latin Kings. One of them Baumann recognized from television: Perry Hernandez, a figure in the Dowaliby investigation. “Did you do what they say you did on TV?” another of the Kings asked Hernandez. Baumann heard the name of Cynthia Dowaliby mentioned, and Hernandez’s response, “I tried to break into a window but was making too much noise so I went around the house and went inside through an open door.” Then the Kings walked off along the track in the yard. Baumann followed them and heard Hernandez say, “I hope what I told the cops about me being with a girl that night sticks up.”

Hernandez figured in the Dowaliby trial, although not as prominently as the defense had hoped he would. He’d confessed to abducting and molesting a seven-year-old girl in Blue Island in 1989, and Dowaliby’s attorneys wanted to make the jury doubt that David Dowaliby was more likely to have murdered Jaclyn than Hernandez was. The defense had hoped to tell the jury that just a day before Jaclyn disappeared, there’d been an incident in a nearby home in which a woman chased off an intruder and then found her sleeping daughter mysteriously wrapped in a blanket. A year later the woman was shown a picture of Hernandez and identified him as the intruder.

But Judge Neville wouldn’t allow this episode to be aired in court. The judge also barred testimony on an attempted break-in by Hernandez at a place where he’d admitted he “thought a little girl lived,” as well as Hernandez’s admission that he “had a problem with fantasizing about little girls.”

All of this was too insubstantial for the judge. Would it have seemed more pertinent if girded by the testimony of Gerald Baumann? If the jury had heard all there was to hear about Perry Hernandez, would it have convicted David Dowaliby?

Rossi told Baumann she’d investigate his story. Baumann waited. Apparently there was an exchange of letters. Baumann waited some more. In early August he wrote Rossi another letter, and she didn’t answer it.

In the meantime, on July 10, Judge Neville sentenced David Dowaliby to 45 years in prison.

On August 11 Baumann wrote the state’s attorney’s office. Strangely, this letter did not mention Hernandez at all. Now Baumann was volunteering information on a former cell mate charged with murder. But when investigators interviewed Baumann, he told them about Hernandez too.

On September 28, the state’s attorney’s office told Dowaliby’s new attorneys from Jenner & Block about Gerald Baumann.

The lawyers prepared a petition asking Judge Neville to overturn the May verdict. A hearing on this petition brought Gerald Baumann into Neville’s courtroom on December 18.

Like Rosalind Rossi before him, Judge Neville didn’t buy Baumann’s story. The state’s attorney who grilled Baumann didn’t crack him, but Baumann did concede how eager he’d been to ease out of Joliet and into a medium-security prison (he’s now at Dixon). And according to the jail log, on the day when Baumann claimed to have overheard Hernandez in the yard, the yard was closed to inmates because of the weather.

We assume the Sun-Times does not feel vindicated.

We assume the Sun-Times does not think for a second that we all now see that when a story fails to impress a newspaper a judge or jury has no need to hear it. We assume the Sun-Times will grant that it can react one way, yet a court of law another.

After all, the Sun-Times’s verdict on Gerald Baumann did not satisfy Jenner & Block. Judge Neville did not bark at the petitioners, “Why do you waste the court’s time when journalism has already decided this matter?”

No, we assume the Sun-Times did not remain silent simply to do the court a favor. We assume the Sun-Times kept Gerald Baumann to itself for other reasons, reasons it considered principled.

Rosalind Rossi wouldn’t talk to us about Gerald Baumann. Larry Green, the deputy managing editor with whom she consulted, didn’t want to say much either, on grounds that newspapers don’t talk about the stories they don’t write. But Green insisted that his paper’s conduct was “thorough and responsible”–something that up to a point we are certain is true. Beyond that point? “Our job is not to work for the prosecution or the police or the defense,” Green said. “Our job is to put out a newspaper. We are not an agent of anybody’s.”

Agent? Journalists can tie themselves in knots defining who they are by what they’re not. “She’s not an officer of the court,” editor Dennis Britton said about Rossi, more or less picking up on Green’s argument. “Given the circumstances as you have relayed them to me [he wasn’t as familiar with the particulars as Green was], she did absolutely what a reporter’s supposed to do. News organizations don’t turn their notes over to police agencies.”

No, they don’t. They protect their sources and their own sanctity. But Gerald Baumann did not want protecting. He wanted his story out. He wanted action.

We wondered why it would have been wrong for Rossi to send a note to the defense attorneys and prosecutors: FYI, a guy in Joliet is saying this . . .

“That’s not your job as a reporter,” Britton declared. “It’s not a reporter’s obligation.”

Is it a citizen’s obligation? we said.

“Not if you didn’t find him credible, no. Are you saying, ‘I didn’t find him credible, but you might. Maybe you’re smarter than I am’?”

We weren’t saying that. Maybe we were saying this: “You’re not smarter than me, but you don’t have my job either. I didn’t find the guy credible enough to write a story about, but maybe the judge will find him just credible enough to think twice about a murder conviction. Anyway, a defendant has a right to be tried on all the evidence, and this is some of it.”

“We’re journalists,” Britton went on. “We’re not engaged in causes. I think it would be irresponsible of you to go forward. You shouldn’t be a reporter if you can’t make those judgments. If you need someone to second-guess you, you’d damn well better not be a reporter–because we ask you to make critical judgments all the time, especially about people to whom you’re speaking.”

Would it even have been improper if the Sun-Times had let Baumann know it was blowing him off? No, said Britton. “But there are dozens of tips every day we do nothing with. Dozens of letters each day.”

Rosalind Rossi surely understood that Baumann came to the press in the first place because it is through the press that stories get passed to the world. Yet her duty, as the Sun-Times apparently saw it, was to defend her paper’s dignity and autonomy by keeping mum.

We’ve been in journalism a long time, and we have trouble following this line of reasoning. We wonder if the Sun-Times’s other faithful readers can make heads or tails of it.

Savage Conflict

Anyway, Gerald Baumann was not the matter that Dennis Britton says gave him “about 12 gray hairs.” Those came last month when Terry Savage, a financial pundit shared by Channel Two and the Sun-Times, joined the board of McDonald’s.

This was a wildly inappropriate move for anyone with any pretensions to being a journalist. It apparently delighted Channel Two, where a spokeswoman warbled, “We’re really thrilled for her. This is a wonderful honor and opportunity.”

Britton, in his paper’s admirably frank account of the appointment, said he found it “really troubling when a columnist covering news starts participating in making the news.” But then he talked to Savage, who cleared some things up. She doesn’t work for him. And she’s not a journalist.

“She’s a syndicated columnist,” Britton explained to us. “And I think there’s an important distinction. If Mike Ditka writes a column, he’s not a journalist. He’s a football coach.”

An analysis of more than a hundred of Savage’s columns turned up but one innocuous mention of McDonald’s. “She’s never written stock advice, corporate advice. All she’s done is personal finance, and as long as she sticks to personal finance she’s all right,” Britton said.

Even so, a bad taste stuck in his mouth. “It’s really a problem with newspaper editors,” he said. “We syndicate for a whole host of newspaper features and, really, we’re at their mercy that they’re honest folks.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Pulitzer Community Newspapers, Inc., Chicago.