However keen the competition, the foremost innocent prisoner sitting on an American death row seems to be Illinois’ own Rolando Cruz. 60 Minutes has done Cruz, ditto Unsolved Mysteries and A Current Affair. The Washington Post, New York Times, and LA Times all examined this travesty of justice. The Reader ran a piece just last week.

Such is the extent of his fame that we’ve seen signs of celebrity backlash. Perhaps, says a colleague, less on Cruz and more on some of the poor bastards without massive PR machines behind them would be appropriate.

How do you answer that? Sure, Cruz has had all the advantages. He’s also had ten years behind bars, and unless the state supreme court steps in he’s got a date with a lethal injection.

The other day the Tribune’s Eric Zorn called Cruz “the new Randall Adams,” after the innocent hitchhiker rescued 11 years into a life sentence by the 1988 movie The Thin Blue Line. There’s been no movie on Cruz yet, but three years ago independent producer Chana Bernstein taped eight hours of interviews about the case and broadcast them over cable access television in Du Page County and Chicago. And lately, Zorn has been writing an epic.

At last count Zorn had published 13 Chicagoland columns arguing that prosecutorial zeal, not guilt, is the reason Cruz was sentenced to death in 1985–and again in ’90 after a retrial–for the 1983 rape and murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville. Brian Dugan inconveniently confessed to the same crime later in ’85, while admitting to a similar rape-murder about which prosecutors happily took him at his word.

But that killing hadn’t been prosecuted yet. Nicarico’s had. And when an incorrigible criminal admits to a heinous crime that exactly fits his modus operandi after someone else has been sentenced to death for it, prosecutors find themselves in a tricky position. (1) They can thank God their blunder did not go uncorrected. (2) They can bury their mistake.

“This case is not about technicalities; it’s about a massive miscarriage of justice, blatant misrepresentations to the jury,” Zorn told us. “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.”

Zorn’s presentation has been pellucid, but he’s also run into the backlash. “Somebody was picking on me on the computer bulletin board,” he told us. “They said, “Is every columnist going to get his favorite martyr out of jail?”‘

We can only wish. Most columnists don’t do martyrs. Zorn got around to his after writing a column last November that outlined his opposition to the death penalty. His reasons boiled down to two: it doesn’t reduce crime, and the innocent can get killed.

“Ironically, capital punishment is actually impeding the search for truth in the Cruz case,” he went on. “[Dugan] has confessed to the Nicarico murder but has declined to testify for Cruz unless he is given immunity from the death penalty. Prosecutors have refused, so Cruz’s guilt remains in doubt.”

As we see it, capital punishment cuts both ways. Cruz might never have become a somebody if he hadn’t been sentenced to death. Now an impressive coalition of religious, community, and civil rights groups has come together to vindicate him and his codefendant Alex Hernandez (who’s serving 80 years), and when Zorn alluded to the case last fall they offered him the complete file. The documents appalled him.

Zorn began to look for a “time peg” for launching his columns. His opportunity was a forum on wrongful convictions organized by Cruz’s backers for February 7 at the Northwestern University Law School. (Randall Adams spoke.) Zorn started writing February 6.

The forum wasn’t Zorn’s only time peg. Tuesday’s primaries loomed five weeks in the future, and “two of the men most responsible for pursuing this highly dubious prosecution and execution” were on the ballot. One was Roland Burris, the Democratic attorney general running for governor. Zorn–in not quite so many words–has presented him as a gutless wonder: “His repeated protestations that he had no other real choice but to uphold Du Page County’s prosecution of Rolando Cruz no matter what his professional assessment is a hollow political dodge.”

The other was Jim Ryan, the Du Page County state’s attorney running for Burris’s current job. Ryan’s office “paraded thieves, liars and bumbling lawmen in front of the jury in lieu of real evidence implicating Cruz,” Zorn wrote, and “unashamedly and successfully fought to prevent them from hearing cold hard facts that might well have exonerated him.”

Even so, the Tribune endorsed Ryan over Republican opponent Jeff Ladd. “He has a commendable record from his decade as the top prosecutor in Du Page,” said the editorial. Our view is that sending an innocent man to his death is enough to spoil a commendable record, but the Tribune sets its own standards.

Does the Ryan endorsement trouble you? we asked Zorn. He thought about it. “Boy, does it trouble me? No,” he decided, “because I don’t pay that much attention. I think these things are done on a totally different level.”

Don Wycliff, the head of the editorial board, wouldn’t discuss the babel of viewpoints that produced the board’s endorsement, but he didn’t sound enthusiastic about it.

Why didn’t you so much as mention the Cruz prosecution in your endorsement? we asked him. “That was not going to be in any case the only basis for the decision,” Wycliff said. “It was something we discussed, to be sure. If it was a choice between Ryan and nobody it might be decisive. But it was a choice between Ryan and somebody, and we had to decide who was preferable.”

The Sun-Times endorsed Ladd for one big reason–the Cruz prosecution: “Charges that Ryan mishandled the notorious Jeanine Nicarico case are too troubling to ignore, especially since they involve questions of whether an innocent man might be executed for the murder of the 10-year-old girl. Because the charges relate directly to his performance as a chief prosecutor, they are enough for us to question whether he should now become the state’s chief law enforcement officer.”

Did the Sun-Times endorsement give too much weight to this one case? we asked Wycliff. He could have said yes and didn’t. “As I say,” he responded, “I have my own strong opinions.”

Simpson’s Sin

In Cardinal Bernardin’s time of trial, the Chicago press did not abandon him lightly to his enemies. But the cardinal was not running for office. If he had been, we assume the media would have stood silently by or nodded assent as opponents mocked him as a flake in flowing robes who made eschatological remarks in mixed company and openly practiced doctrine!

Five years ago we read a book by Dick Simpson called The Politics of Compassion and Transformation. We were the first journalist in the universe to read Simpson’s meditation on global catastrophe and spiritual redemption, and possibly we were the last–unless you count Tom Roeser. As Simpson’s friend, we knew the book meant trouble. We wrote then: “Simpson has long had the idea of running for Congress in the back of his mind. But he supposes that if he’s ever a candidate, “someone will quote the wrong passage out of context.’ Actually, he could be quoted in context and ruined. As he says of today’s America, “No previous civilization has reached this stage of disintegration and survived.’ This is not the bright side we expect of our leaders.”

This winter John Cullerton dusted off his opponent’s tome. Cullerton, you’ll recall, is the candidate the Tribune’s Jon Margolis identified early on as the one “not running a divisive campaign”–a plug Cullerton made hay with against Simpson and Dan Rostenkowski. He blanketed the Fifth Congressional District with slick fliers that showed the robed Simpson (he’s an ordained minister) holding a chalice high. The photo was lifted from the jacket of Simpson’s book. Simpson’s mustache didn’t help matters.

“Dick Simpson and His Vision of Doom,” said one flier. “Are We Ready for Dick Simpson As Our Congressman?” asked another. “The Twilight Zone,” it proclaimed.

Roeser, as we said, read the book and wrote about it in the Sun-Times. Roeser, oft dismissed as an archconservative eccentric because of his own religious preoccupations, reported that the lies were true. Yes, the book did reveal a spiritual life at odds with mindless optimism. “It refers to ideas foreign, frightening and unaesthetic to any average pol.”

Perhaps the same can be said of any average political reporter. Steve Neal seems at least to have turned the pages before writing that Simpson’s views were wacky and politically fair game. We have to wonder if anyone else did.

“Well, a number of them asked about it,” Simpson’s campaign director, Tom Gradel, told us this week. “Dick would point out that a lot of this stuff was imagery, he wasn’t being literal. He did do the survey of the various religions. He did try to understand a lot of different methods for self-discovery.

“Usually that lasted about four minutes and then they’d say, “Well, you did write those things, didn’t you?”‘

Did you get the idea any of them actually read it? we asked Gradel.

“No,” he said.

“We did a news conference,” he told us, “which got very little coverage, which had about eight or nine ministers, rabbis, and a guy from the Muslim voters’ league supporting Dick’s writings as well within the mainstream. It got almost no pickup.”

Horse-race journalism is least equal to the occasion when one candidate’s calling another a religious crackpot. But don’t think the press made no attempt to assess Simpson’s moral and spiritual positions. Margolis called him a “self-absorbed moralist.” Mike Royko called him “kind of a self-righteous bore.”

Memo to candidates: they won’t make fun of your ethics if you don’t claim to have any.

Credit Check

Credit where it’s due. Last week we quoted gay activist Rick Garcia on behalf of German model Helmut Hofer, who’d been linked by TV hysteria if not by evidence to the murder of Wilmette’s Suzanne Olds. We should have added that we lifted Garcia’s remarks from the Windy City Times, which covered the press conference at which he spoke. WCT gave us invaluable assistance in pursuing Hofer’s story, and we’re grateful.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.