Armstrong talks on death penalty

by N.F.S. Knight | 5/21/01 5:00am

For the past three years, Ken Armstrong has been on a mission.

As a legal affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune, he has taken on one of the most imposing institutions of modern American society

"In the past three years, the Chicago Tribune has taken a different approach to the death penalty. Illinois has exonerated more men from death row than it has executed. We wanted to find out why," Armstrong said.

He spoke of his journalistic crusade to eliminate the death penalty before a crowd of approximately 25 students, faculty and community members in the Rockefeller Center last week, where he is currently a visiting Niemann Fellow under the Bernard D. Nossiter lecture series on criminal justice and public policy.

Debate over the efficacy of capital punishment came to a head a year ago when Gov. George Ryan declared a state moratorium on the death penalty.

Many attribute Gov. Ryan's decision to a series of articles criticizing the death penalty written by Armstrong and his partner, Steve Mills, in the Chicago Tribune.

One article, in particular, included the story of Anthony Porter.

"Porter came within two days of his execution, when it was stayed because of his low I.Q," Armstrong said. "A group of University of Chicago students later took up the cause of Porter's innocence and successfully exonerated him of the crime."

"We ran our series in November of 1999 and two months later Gov. Ryan declared the moratorium," he continued.

Armstrong and Mills claim that a number of factors have contributed to erroneous sentencing in Illinois, citing the paucity of good defense lawyers willing to defend capital punishment defendants as one.

"At least 30 percent of capital punishment defendants had been represented by men who had been disbarred at some point in their careers," Armstrong said.

According to Armstrong, another factor has been the use of so called "career witnesses." One such case involved a career witness named Tommy Dye.

"Tommy Dye testified against a Steve Manning and put him on death row. Dye is not a credible witness, yet his testimony has been used to put numerous people away. We reported and got the charges against Manning dropped," Armstrong said.

When asked by audience member if he felt that he was taking particularly flawed death penalty cases and portraying them as representative in order to deliberately present the death penalty in a negative light, Armstrong said no.

"We are putting a barrier between that kind of journalism and ourselves. We are doing transparent journalism," he said.

Another element in the death penalty debate has been the use of DNA as evidence.

"DNA works in favor of the death penalty. It inspires confidence in the system by assuring that innocent defendants will not be put to death. At the same time, a lot of cases do not have biological evidence, so DNA is not a panacea," Armstrong said.

Despite such flaws in the system, support for the death penalty remains at over 60 percent. This represents a decline from the high of over 80 percent achieved during the 1980s.

"The history of the death penalty is cyclical," Armstrong said. "In the 20th century, the pendulum on the death penalty has swung back and forth."

One student in attendance at the speech asked Armstrong if he thought that the pendulum would ever stop.

"I am not that clairvoyant," he said. "In Europe it has not been brought back, yet in America it remains popular. The pendulum of support for the death penalty has been swinging back and forth for ever. I don't think that it is ever going to stop."