Courtroom Crusaders

When They First Met, Warden and Protess 
Were on Opposite Sides of an Issue   
By Mara Tapp  

   Rob Warden and David Protess are about the last people a prosecutor wants to see waiting outside the courtroom. That is just the way they like it, because they have spent their professional lives as journalists warning as loudly as they could of the unexamined power of the government to destroy innocent people through the power of wrongful prosecution.  

   Years ago Warden kept a spotlight on unreliable statements by children about Sandra Fabiano, the day-care center operator charged with sexual abuse and later acquitted. Protess' 1990 interview with Cynthia Dowaliby after her husband was convicted of murdering her daughter began the process of unraveling the case that supported the Dowaliby prosecution. And Protess and Warden's efforts helped lead to the exoneration of four black men -- the so-called Ford Heights Four -- in the 1978 murders of a young white  couple.  

   What drives these two reporters to embrace the causes of people accused, many of them convicted, of horrible crimes? The answer is simple: They are obsessed--some say to a fault--by the idea that the government should never, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' immortal phrase, "play an ignoble part."  

   One multiyear odyssey inspired their new book, "A Promise of Justice" (Hyperion), which tells the tale of those four young suburban African-American men convicted in the 1978 slayings of Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal. The book chronicles efforts to get the Ford Heights Four--Dennis Williams, Verneal Jimerson, Kenny Adams and Willie Rainge--out of prison, and Williams and Jimerson off Death Row. It took 14 years of work by Protess, a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and Warden, a political consultant and longtime investigative reporter, as well as the defendants, four of Protess' students, assorted lawyers, judges, investigators and other journalists to get the job done.  

   "To me what's inspirational about this story, and what made me want to write this book, is it shows how people can really come together to really help these four men," says Protess. 

   Recently, in Warden's North Side apartment, the authors explained what made it so difficult to crack the case involving the four childhood friends with no records of violent crime and prosecutors in the Cook County Circuit Court's south suburban Markham courthouse, which Warden calls "a very racist place." It was a place where, Protess says, prosecutorial attitudes toward defendants could be summed up this way: `If they didn't do this, they did something else, and if they didn't do something else, they will do something else.'  

   "But we don't have a cosmic justice system," he adds. "We have a criminal justice system that should nail people only for things they have probably done."  

   The Ford Heights Four prosecution was supported by four Cook County state's attorneys: Bernard Carey, Richard M. Daley, the late Cecil Partee and Jack O'Malley. But then Warden, who had been issues director for O'Malley's campaign, joined his staff in 1994 and encouraged a fresh look at the case. After news investigations revealed the sloppiness of the case, as well as the identities of the real murderers, the Ford Heights Four were freed.  

   The assistance of journalism students, who made some key discoveries as they investigated the case as a class project for Protess, drew publicity to the cause. Protess acknowledges that, although a lot of people were involved in getting the men freed, "the most newsworthy of that group are my students . . . because they're young and white and innocent. It makes it a feel-good story."  

   When the story hit the front page of The New York Times, the students became instant heroes, to the extent that reporters wanted to interview them instead of the defendants. The way that played still bothers the authors.  

   "The reality is," Protess stresses, "it was a team effort and the students were part of a team."  
   Protess and Warden began working together on Chicago Lawyer magazine, an investigative monthly. A longtime reporter at the Chicago Daily News, Warden founded Chicago Lawyer in 1978 and was its editor until he sold it 11 years later. Protess was research director at the Better Government Association, a watchdog group, from 1976 to 1981, when he joined the Medill faculty. He and his investigative journalism students found a place for their stories in the Lawyer, the only place in Chicago, he says, where "real muckraking" was going on.  

   Warden and Protess' first major book collaboration was on another high-profile case, that of Cynthia and David Dowaliby, a Midlothian couple accused of killing her 7-year-old daughter, Jaclyn, in 1988. Cynthia ultimately was acquitted before the case went to the jury; David's conviction was overturned in 1991.  

   "Rob drew me to the Ford Heights Four. I drew Rob to Dowaliby," recalls Protess. "What drew me to Dowaliby was hearing Cynthia Dowaliby talk to my students. In the course of doing research and talking to her friends and family and neighbors, I became convinced that she was innocent and then I went to David Dowaliby and became convinced that he was innocent."  

   Protess co-wrote a Chicago Tribune series about the Dowalibys and, with Warden, wrote "Gone in the Night: The Dowaliby Family's Encounter With Murder and the Law" (Delacorte, 1993).  

   That first book forged a partnership. "Dave Protess and I have a wonderful working relationship," Warden says. "We're not social friends. We don't go out and have drinks together. We don't have lunch to catch up. . . . We work very well together. We respect each other."  

   Their relationship, explains Warden, is "almost like a marriage" in its pattern of argument and  persuasion. So perhaps it's not surprising that their wives sometimes serve as tiebreakers and bring their own expertise. Jennifer Alter Warden is a marketing executive and former journalist. Joan Protess is a lawyer.  

   The writers' relationship exhibits the uninspired habits of long associations, as well as signs of Warden and Protess' own single-minded obsessiveness. For example, for the six months it took to write each book, they religiously lunched at the same restaurant--Ann Sather's for "A Promise of Justice," and Nookies for "Gone in the Night." Warden's friends know that as long as he is working on a story, he discusses each twist and turn, each new revelation of wrongful prosecution, in great detail, for years.  

   Ironically, when they first met, Warden and Protess were on opposite sides of an issue. Protess and the BGA had been involved in the Mirage, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that revealed corruption among Chicago municipal employees. The undercover techniques used by the reporters, who operated a bar as a front for a sting operation, kicked off a national media debate and drew Warden's criticism. The co-authors still differ on this issue, although Protess agrees that "some of the techniques we used were overzealous. . . . You don't want to be like people you hold up to scrutiny. . . . There were more effective techniques--interviewing, records, paper trails--and they end up producing a more solid story."  

   They do, however, reach consensus on the death penalty.  

  "We became opposed to the death penalty through an objective, intellectual process that led us to conclude that you can't trust this system to kill people," says Warden.  

   In an age when the objectivity of journalism is being questioned, Protess tries to teach students "that their first goal is the truth, and we look at this in a very objectified way. . . . When you've conducted a thorough investigation and the evidence is that someone is innocent, then . . . your role as a human being supersedes your role as an investigator. . . . So I think your role as an advocate kicks in later." 

   Such a philosophy has its supporters and its critics.  

  Journalist Alex Kotlowitz, author of "The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America's Dilemma" and "There Are No Children Here," respects Warden and Protess' willingness to take risks. "Dave's incredibly passionate about what he gets involved in and ultimately the best journalism comes out of passion," Kotlowitz says. "Frankly, I wish there were more probing journalists out there who were willing to run away from the center of the storm and spend time on stories like this (the Ford Heights Four)."  

   Ed Genson, a well-known criminal defense lawyer with Genson & Gillespie, has "a very high opinion of Warden," for whom he is a source. "He basically uncovered things that were swept under the rug for years."  

   When he was U.S. attorney, Dan K. Webb recalls, he thought Warden "distorted facts and pursued an agenda that was not fair in the final analysis." But Webb changed his mind when he met Warden on the O'Malley campaign and came to have "a great deal of respect for his judgment, his common sense and his value to the campaign."  

   Critics--and they are plentiful--are less generous. Movers and shakers who are usually forthcoming declined to talk for the record, but they echoed complaints long heard in legal and journalistic circles about biases and unscrupulous techniques. One critic calls Warden "a vendetta journalist" and Protess "an agenda journalist." Another says Warden "thinks everybody is either a charlatan or a fool. . . . He assumes dark motives on everybody's part. He is the perfect child of the conspiracy theory generation."  

   Northwestern University law professor Larry Marshall calls such criticism "a tribute to (Warden's) integrity." Genson concurs: "If someone's caught doing something wrong and the system allows that to happen . . . and people want to call it a `vendetta,' fine. . . . The system he attacked, the procedures he attacked were wrong. . . . I have friends he attacked, and I felt sorry for them but I didn't think it was wrong."  

   Marshall explains: "They've embarrassed people by what they expose from time to time, but they've embarrassed all of us by our own inaction. It's embarrassing that we were sitting there and they were able to do such wonderful things, and I think that's what makes them great and inspires some degree of resentment as well."  

   Then there are some tangible happy endings--the outcomes of the Ford Heights Four. Warden and Protess take pleasure in knowing this battle is over and won. But their fight against prosecutorial sloppiness, misconduct and injustice continues.  

Click HERE to read about their latest victory, freeing Anthony Porter from Death Row.

A Promise of Justice
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Truth in Justice