Chicago Tribune on Trial?

February 1, 2022
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Who do Tribune journalists Megan Crepeau and Jason Meisner really work for?

In 2011, former Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Cannon handed down a ruling that posed a grave threat to the exoneration industry in Chicago, an industry that has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and built the careers of many journalists while at the same time destroying those of many police detectives.

Cannon ruled that student investigators at Northwestern University’s prestigious journalism school, Medill, led by iconic professor David Protess, were acting as investigators for attorneys, not journalists, in their investigation of a potential wrongful conviction case. Because of this, Cannon argued the student investigators were not protected by reporter privilege laws. After a long legal battle, Cannon ruled the students and Protess had to turn over a large body of records concerning their investigation to prosecutors.

From the Chicago Tribune:

"While acknowledging that student journalists would ordinarily be shielded by the state's reporter privilege law, Judge Diane Cannon ruled that the Medill School of Journalism students were "acting as investigators in a criminal proceeding" when they collaborated with law students at the university's Center on Wrongful Convictions."

With the release of this evidence, a scandal erupted at Northwestern, leading to the exit of Protess, and Northwestern stating Protess had not been telling the truth to the school about his investigations.

A central chapter in the wrongful conviction movement in Chicago, Protess' investigations breathed life into countless complaints against Chicago police officers and ruined both the reputations and careers of many officers. However, Chicago’s media dutifully put a wall around the story and refused to dig deeper into what was taking place at Medill. A compelling story worthy of investigation died in a vast media silence.

It turns out that student journalists working exclusively on behalf of attorneys positing exoneration claims is no anomaly. There are numerous examples this is standard operating procedure among members of Chicago’s media. Those students fronted out by Judge Cannon may merely have been learning the practice of “journalism” in Chicago that had been taking place for decades. The fact that Cannon’s ruling did not lead to a larger investigation of media practices from Medill or the rest of the city pointed to another feature of Chicago media: A code of silence that runs among journalists — print, radio or digital — and a refusal to rupture their alliance with the exoneration industry.

The media outlet that led the insurrection from journalism to advocacy was the Chicago Tribune, and no reporters reflect this sacrifice of real journalism to the altar of wrongful convictions more than reporters Megan Crepeau and Jason Meisner.

Each and every day, the Tribune pounds out another article, editorial, or column in some way burnishing the image of the captains of the exoneration industry at the expense of the career and reputation of some police officer or detective, many who served the city honorably for decades.

Only last week, Crepeau, a graduate of Medill, was at it again. Crepeau wrote in depth articles about a hot mic incident in which a Cook County judge made disparaging and unprofessional remarks about an attorney after a testy court hearing in an exoneration case.

Judge William Raines was reportedly recorded saying: “Can you imagine waking up next to her every day? Oh my God,” in reference to New York attorney Jennifer Bonjean after a hearing in which Bonjean was representing a man claiming he was wrongfully convicted of a 1992 murder. Bonjean is one of the city’s most prolific and successful attorneys claiming men have been falsely convicted of murders and rapes.

Bonjean is reported in Crepeau’s article as saying she would file a complaint about the incident. Immediately afterward, according to media reports, the case was reassigned to a new judge, Carol Howard. This move bodes well for Bonjean in her quest to represent her client. There are signs Judge Raines, a former policeman, was not buying Bonjean’s exoneration claims, whereas Howard is likely a far more sympathetic. Howard has established a reputation for being so solicitous to the claim of a wrongful conviction, police officers appearing in her courtroom at Leighton, Room 203, contrived the maxim “set em’ free, 203” after witnessing the judge toss many airtight cases.

In her articles covering the incident, Crepeau cited some background about Bonjean, including the fact that Bonjean successfully represented Bill Cosby in his quest to have his conviction overturned and released from prison. Crepeau also claimed Bonjean recently signed on to represent R. Kelly in sex abuse allegations.

Some background information on Bonjean did not creep into Crepeau’s story, however. In another case several years ago, for example, Bonjean’s actions in the federal courtroom of Judge Charles Norgle initiated a review by the appeals court, which criticized Bonjean’s statements in the trial.

"These inappropriate comments were well outside the bounds of professional conduct and zealous advocacy,” the appeals court said in 2017 about Bonjean’s statements, describing them as 'easily…deemed contemptuous.'"

Rude, unprofessional and demeaning to women, Raines comments demand some censure. Rest assured Crepeau will be at the forefront of covering every step of the punitive measures that take shape against Raines.

For Crepeau, Meisner and the Tribune, women’s rights, and the larger issue of human rights so often used as the foundation of their stories, appear to be arbitrary and capricious things, often taking a distant backseat to whether these issues can be used to support the exoneration industry and the larger journalism war on police in Chicago. Crepeau’s energetic articles in the case against Judge Raines, on the one hand, and her and the paper’s silence in more ominous cases of abuse, including cases involving horrific examples of violence against women on the other, is an example.

The long record in the disparity of coverage over cases that bolster exonerations and silence over others that undermine them harkens back to Judge Cannon’s ruling that student journalists at Medill were not acting journalistically in their investigation of key murder cases, but as investigators for attorneys representing exoneration claimants.

It is the Chicago media’s dirtiest secret. An encyclopedia could be amassed for the allegations challenging police misconduct theories throughout the city, including cases by Bonjean, that have never seen the light of day in Chicago’s media landscape. This vast body of omissions cannot be dismissed as merely bad journalism. They comprise their own “pattern and practice,” a treasured phrase made by journalists against the police in their tired misconduct stories. This pattern and practice points to a fundamental breakdown of the media in Chicago that takes a potentially mortal toll on the justice and political system.    

In 2020, Bonjean won a successful verdict in federal court in which a jury awarded her client, Stanley Wrice, $5 million on allegations Wrice was coerced into confessing to a gang rape and severe burning of a woman in Wrice’s home. A case attorneys representing the detectives clearly thought they could win, one reason for optimism was that a key witness who grew up near Wrice stated in a deposition that Wrice repeatedly raped and abused her beginning when she was 14 years old and impregnated the woman with her first three children. The judge in the case, however, limited the scope of the woman’s testimony and the jury did not hear about her horrific claims.

Nor did the public hear about the ghastly claims from the Chicago Tribune. As the woman sat outside the courtroom waiting to testify, no reporters were on hand to ask about her childhood experience living near Stanley Wrice. No cameras on the first floor awaited a moment to interview her. No media, particularly the Tribune, gave voice to the woman’s chilling accounts in her deposition of being repeatedly beaten and raped by Wrice when she was a child.

Before the case even went to federal trial, Wrice went before a judge hoping to obtain a certificate of innocence, a key step in building a successful lawsuit against the city. Judge Thomas Byrne rejected granting one, ruling Wrice was culpable in the crime. Byrne also cast doubt on witness retractions obtained by students working under David Protess in the case. Again, no media investigation into these developments, and therefore no coverage from the Tribune.

One wonders how many articles Megan Crepeau will churn out about the Judge Raines hot mic incident in comparison to the silence she and her colleague Jason Meisner have constructed around the Wrice case. Wrice is now a millionaire at taxpayer expense.

In another case, Bonjean successfully bid to obtain a multimillion-dollar settlement for Armando Serrano and Jose Maysonet for their alleged involvement in a 1990 double homicide. In the course of that federal lawsuit, attorneys representing the City of Chicago made sensational allegations in federal court, specifically that Serrano and his “agents” hid or intentionally lost key evidence that showed Serrano and Maysonet were guilty of the crime.

In a motion, city attorneys stated:

"But Defendants discovered that Plaintiff Serrano’s agents deliberately destroyed and/or intentionally lost inculpatory audiotapes, memos, and notes relating to key witness interviews."

Imagine if a police officer or detective were accused of “deliberately” destroying inculpatory evidence. How many stories would Meisner and Crepeau churn out on this? Despite these allegations, Chicago recently settled on the case. Perhaps if the public were informed of the intense legal drama that played out in federal courts over this case, an informed public and public servants could have led to a different outcome.      

One of the defendants in the case, a former judge, Matthew Coghlan was a prosecutor working the original murder case against the men. Coghlan’s attorneys specifically claimed an activist role of the media as a threat to Coghlan getting a fair shake in the trial from his depositions and court transcripts. Here is what his attorneys alleged in a motion:

"Coghlan has a substantial concern that Plaintiffs will publicly disseminate the transcript and video (or cut or splice portions of them) in order to embarrass or harass him and to improperly influence the potential jury pool. The concern is not abstract or theoretical. To the contrary, prior to his deposition, Plaintiffs already started to try this case in the media, engaging in repeated media attacks against Coghlan specifically, and in some instances, misrepresenting the evidence in these cases. In addition, a number of the questions posed to Coghlan during his deposition had no relevance to the merits of the case and were designed solely to embarrass or harass him. What is more, Plaintiffs have failed to identify why they would have any need for disseminating the video and/or transcript of Coghlan’s deposition, leaving the clear implication that the sole purpose would be to embarrass and/or harass him and to try to influence the potential jury pool."

Were the statements by Coughlan’s attorneys here based on the assumption that the media was on the side of Serrano’s attorneys?

And so it goes from one exoneration case to another, an intense battle between the attorneys for these once convicted men and the city attorneys representing the detectives, Meisner and Crepeau remaining silent about the claims disputing the exonerations.

Former Judge Coghlan’s statement about trying the case in the media actually is only the tip of the iceberg. City attorneys are specifically citing biased Tribune coverage in several key cases.

In yet another case, city attorneys, for example, allege that even top prosecutors in Kim Foxx’s Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office did not believe two men, Nevest Coleman and Darryl Fulton, were innocent of a ghastly 1994 rape and murder of a woman in the basement of Coleman’s home. The attorneys specifically cited the Chicago Tribune as influencing decision making at the top level of the prosecutor’s office to not to retry the men after their convictions were tossed:

"The CCSAO [Cook County State’s Attorney] suddenly reversed course and dropped the charges in the midst of intense media pressure, primarily from the Chicago Tribune," city attorneys stated in their motion.

Tyrone Hood walked out of prison for the 1993 murder of a young man, Marshall Morgan Jr., when then-Gov. Pat Quinn commuted his sentence, shortly before Quinn left office. City attorneys, attacking the governor's decision to let out a convicted killer for seemingly arbitrary reasons, deposed Quinn, who fought the deposition.

Once again, media pressure from the Tribune and other outlets, not evidence, was cited by city attorneys as a key reason for Quinn’s actions. From a motion in Hood’s civil lawsuit:

"Mr. Quinn’s decision set in motion a chain of events that led directly to the reversal of Plaintiff’s [Hood’] convictions and these lawsuits, but the decision was not based on the discovery of any new evidence exonerating Hood . . . , such as DNA or eyewitness testimony excluding [him] from the crime—that evidence does not exist. Rather, it was the product of an intense media campaign by Hood’s attorneys involving local and international celebrities, NBC Chicago, Peacock Productions, the Chicago Tribune, and the New Yorker Magazine."

Stunning allegations lodged against the media, yet their response was only silence.

Compare that very silence from Crepeau and Meisner over these cases with Crepeau’s fervent coverage of Judge Raines’ off mic insult of a wrongful conviction attorney and the import of Judge Diane Cannon’s ruling in 2017 about journalism students working on behalf of attorneys defending exoneration claimants becomes more clear.

Chicago taxpayers who are paying these outrageous settlements and verdicts have a right to be informed. They count on the media to do so. The Chicago Tribune, with reporters like Meisner and Crepeau, have failed them miserably.

And God bless Judge Diane Cannon.

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