By: Greg Mitchell
For several years now, the Chicago Tribune has published numerous articles — many of them award-winning — exposing the many faults in the administration of capital punishment in its home state and the nation. Some of them helped inspire a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.
All the while, the paper’s editorial page continued to support capital punishment. That changed three weeks ago with an editorial opposing the death penalty. Relatively few newspapers have gone that far and public opinion continues to back capital punishment — although support drops when people are given the option of “life without parole.”
Today, the Tribune’s public editor, Timothy McNulty, reports that his paper’s surprise editorial has drawn surprisingly little black from readers. Here is the first part of his column.
Individuals change their minds often, but a change of mind for a newspaper’s editorial position, especially one that has stood since at least 1869, is far less common.
When the Tribune’s editorial board came out in opposition to the death penalty three weeks ago, the newspaper might have expected a rise out of readers and politicians previously aligned with traditional thinking that favored capital punishment.
“The evidence of recent years argues that it is necessary to curb the government’s power,” the editorial declared, overturning its previous arguments. “It is time to abolish the death penalty.”
There was barely a ripple, a few heartfelt letters to the editor, a few calls, and almost all accepting and welcoming the new attitude.
Abolition of the death penalty isn’t on the political radar at the moment, and if any readers were surprised, they may have assumed the newspaper already opposed the death penalty. Eight years ago, reporters Maurice Possley, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong began detailing the abuses, and their reporting led then-Gov. George Ryan to impose a death-penalty moratorium in 2000. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has maintained it since.
Tribune writers continue to lead on national stories about death-penalty abuses. Cornelia Grumman, an editorial writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for her series of editorials on the injustice of the death penalty.
While here and in other states the same arguments are put forward by both sides of the debate, the Tribune’s editorial board looked at them afresh, but also with the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is not applied fairly and is too open to mistakes that cost innocent lives.