The Story of Life and Death

Maurice Possley is one of the best investigative journalists in the nation, and one of the most thorough reporters I have ever met and known, and he has made a speciality recently of focusing upon the many substantive and procedural defects inherent in the nation's capital punishment industry. This week, he and co-writer Steve Mills, are out with a vital new special report "Wrongly Executed" for their newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which raises fresh questions about whether we as a nation have in our recent history proceeded to execute an innocent man.

The story of Carlos De Luna and Carlos Hernandez, as told by the two reporters, is a sadly familar one to those who follow closely the criminal justice system. The police do a shoddy job at the crime scene. Witnesses are duped into making positive identifications. The suspect acts irresponsibly. The prosecutors at trial gloss over exculpatory information and leads. The judge is a hazy figure who doesn't do much, the jury in the end doesn't get all the information it should before sending off some poor loser to death row, and the appellate judges and politicians have put up so many hurdles designed to deny defendants post-trial relief that mistakes go uncorrected for years, or perhaps, forever.

I'm not completely convinced after reading the series that an innocent man was executed. But I am convinced that the legitimate questions surrounding the 1989 execution of Carlos De Luna for a crime that Carlos Hernandez probably committed in 1983 come up too often in too many other capital cases to be dismissed as mere exceptions to a general rule that the system gets it right in the end. Among Possley's many other contributions to journalism, and to the law, is his dogged attention to the specifics of this larger story; his ability to take from the trend a single story that illustrates more than raw numbers just how prevelant the problem may be.

Read the series, even if it takes a while to get through the Trib's registration process. It's the real deal and so is Mo.

By Andrew Cohen |  June 29, 2006; 8:00 AM ET
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