Freeing the innocent

We had just placed our lunch orders at an upscale restaurant in downtown Joliet when the call came. What was expected to take most of the day ended up taking only about an hour. We were on our way to watch a wrongfully convicted man be freed from prison after nearly three decades.

IMG_2850 cropped

I accompanied the Springfield-based Illinois Innocence Project on Feb. 11 to see their client, Christopher Abernathy, set free. I’ve written about the group extensively, becoming intimately aware by osmosis of the gaping holes in the justice system which allow innocent people to be imprisoned. IIP has seen several victories throughout their existence, and they’re applying what they’ve learned to help improve the system.

Abernathy was accused on false testimony of the gruesome rape and murder of a young girl he knew. There was no physical evidence against him. His freedom finally came after IIP arranged DNA testing on several items of evidence in the case, which proved he was not the killer.

Back at the restaurant, the waiter rushed to the kitchen to reroute our food from plates into plastic to-go boxes, and we promptly piled into the van, wolfing down our food as the driver sped through the city. We pulled up to Stateville Correctional Center beneath the imposing 30-foot-high concrete walls and walked to the lobby. The howling wind made what would otherwise have been a pleasant day almost unbearably cold, but I stood with the other photographers in the parking lot outside the lobby door. A few minutes later, Abernathy walked out, wearing only a few thin shirts to protect him from the wind. He was in such pain from a shoulder injury that he had to cradle his bad arm with his good one, so he wasn’t in any shape to hold a press conference.

Accompanied by his family, his legal team and the private investigator who kept his case alive for eight years, Abernathy walked to a waiting car and waited to be driven away from the only life he’d known for more than 29 years. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be cut off from the world for that long, then suddenly be thrust into the society and expected to live a normal life. The unfamiliarity, fear, isolation and loss of identity (even if for the better) would be overwhelming.  Luckily for him, he has a dedicated team of supporters who will move heaven and earth to help him. Indeed, they already have.

Read more about the case here.

Advertisements

Rooting out racism with the Dominican Sisters

“We could get rid of all the overt bigots who really do harbor racial hatred,” Dias said, “and we would still have a problem.”

If the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless other black men at the hands of police have collectively had any positive outcome, it has been that America is talking about race at what appears to be a deeper level than I’ve ever seen in my 30 short years. (Thanks in major part to the growth of prominent African-American voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates in the media.) If nothing else, it has made a lot more white people aware that the system we have doesn’t work for black people, and that’s a problem.

People like the (mostly white) Dominican Sisters of Springfield recognized the problem awhile ago and are working to fix it within their institution, with the help of African-American allies whose trust they have earned. I wrote about the Dominican Sisters’ effort for this week’s cover story here. I’m proud of how it turned out – both the writing and the photos I took.

IMG_1262
SDART co-coordinators Leroy Jordan (front) and Sister Marcelline Koch (back).

“…[H]ow people have been treated and still are treated is totally against what God made us to be and what God calls us to be,” she said. “I think Jesus came to really show us how God wants his love to be operative in our world, and racism is the antithesis of that love. If I embrace racism and racist practices, I can in no way square that with who I am called to be.”

This is the kind of work that will need to happen all over the nation if we ever want to definitively deal with the divide between black and white people in America. Until that intentional, genuine effort happens, we can expect more of the same tension, tragedy and fear.

SCODR co-chairman Kenley Wade
SCODR co-chairman Kenley Wade

These folks are doing groundbreaking work with the help of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, and it makes me proud of Springfield to know there is an appetite for this work here, not just in the black community, but among white leadership, as well.

Proximity to power

Sometimes I take for granted just how lucky reporters are. We often get to stand next to people with vast amounts of power and confront them with demanding, penetrating questions. In light of that, it’s sometimes difficult to not delude myself by thinking that I’m important because of my proximity to power or because I have the privilege of being somewhat defiant toward powerful people. I think proximity to power tends to falsely feed one’s ego.

That notion was hammered home to me on Monday at the inauguration ceremony for Illinois’ constitutional officers. As a press photographer, I had the privilege of standing inside the ropes, right at the foot of the stage, less than 20 feet from the most powerful people in the state. The new governor, Bruce Rauner, is a multi-millionaire with potential to do who knows what with his new powers, and here I am allowed to stroll right up to him and demand he talk to me. (Anyone who has watched Rauner with the press knows he doesn’t always comply with such demands, of course.)

Bruce Rauner

I like the photo above because it reminds me that even the most powerful people are still just people, with the same fears, problems, flaws and goofy facial expressions as the rest of us. Luckily, I know where my real value comes from, and it has nothing to do with whom I get to stand near.

Blagojevich’s last stand

It was six years ago that former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested at his home on federal corruption charges. While looking through some old photos from the Illinois State Capitol, I found some I took during Blagojevich’s impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate. It was a surreal experience, seeing someone who held so much power fighting for his life.

As Blagojevich approached the stand to deliver his speech about why he shouldn’t be impeached, he glanced toward the press box on the Senate floor. His lips were pursed and his eyes seemed to acknowledge his fate. For a brief second, this big-talking hotshot seemed like a normal person.

_MG_1964

However, the minute he began his speech, he was back to his usual arrogance. Several times, he looked directly at the special prosecutor, who sat only a few yards in front of him, as if daring the prosecutor to face him directly.

_MG_2166Blagojevich is in a federal prison in Colorado now. The Senate voted to impeach him that day, and a federal jury later convicted him of corruption.  Even though he’s been out of power for six years, his legacy of mismanagement is still alive in Illinois. Looking back now, I don’t feel sorry for him. He bought the ticket, and now he’s taking the ride.

On video

Part of my job is shooting and editing videos to accompany news article or blogs. It’s a fun change of pace from my usual reporting because I get to work a different creative muscle with video than with writing. Shooting short web videos also helps me distill the story into its most interesting and vital elements.

The video below is from a concert at the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, featuring percussion legend Paul Wertico. It was really neat to meet someone whose work I greatly admire, but I was so focused on the task at hand (and uncharacteristically star struck) that I embarrassed myself when trying to tell him that I really enjoyed “that one album with the colorful circles on the cover,” which only flirts with accurately describing the cover. He was pretty gracious about it.

Sometimes, the pieces are heavier in tone. Here, a (now formerly) homeless man in Springfield performs a song he wrote about the loss of his wife and unborn daughter. I reported on him as part of a larger story, and I was happy to report later that he was able to get off the street.

Another of my favorites I’ve done so far is this one about the Springfield Police Department’s K-9 unit. The story that went with the video deals with the Fourth Amendment issues surrounding drug-sniffing dogs.

I’m trying to use video more to cover spot news, like the union rally of State Journal-Register employees last month. Even if I’m not going to write about something, I hope that having video of it gives readers/viewers a sense of what actually happened.

I’m not sure what the future holds for print media, and I’m not at all concerned about the health of my employer, Illinois Times, but I think it’s clear that video has a place even in the print media atmosphere. I just hope to keep telling interesting, relevant stories, and if I get to have some fun in the mean time, that’s great.

The political geography of Sangamon County

Maps fascinate me. They’re not only useful for navigating physically, but also mentally. I think studying (and producing) maps enhances a person’s sense of direction, spatial reasoning and appreciation of scale. In practical terms, maps can help you make sense of things.

To illustrate the 2014 election results in my county (Sangamon County, Illinois), I made a series of maps depicting party predisposition by precinct. (Alliteration!) It took a lot of work, and it would not have been possible without the awesome work of the folks in the GIS department at the Sangamon County Clerk’s office. They produced the shape files that define the precincts, which allowed me to assign the data to physical areas. For this project, I learned how to build a web scraper with Outwit Hub, which collects data from websites and compiles it into a handy table.

The map below depicts which way each precinct leans politically. To do this, I collected all of the election results by precinct in the races for governor, U.S. Senate, 18th Congressional District, 13th Congressional District, 48th Illinois Senate District, 96th Illinois House District and Sangamon County Sheriff. Next, I averaged the percentage for all Republican candidates and all Democrat candidates in each precinct. That allowed me to see which precincts voted more for Republicans than for Democrats and vice versa. The map illustrates that all precincts outside the City of Springfield leaned Republican, while several within the city leaned Democratic. An interactive version of the map is here: http://cdb.io/1tYvODZ

red blue

While that map shows a concentration of Democratic support in the northeast quadrant of Springfield (which I reported on here), there is no sense of degree here. Looking at that map alone might lead the viewer to conclude that all the red precincts supported Republicans in equal measure. Continue reading

LGBT equality in U.S. cities

I’ve been really into making maps lately. Today, I got an email from the Human Rights Campaign about their 2014 Municipal Equality Index, which grades U.S. cities on LGBT equality. I began to wonder about which areas of the U.S. are most friendly or unfriendly to the LGBT community, so I had to map it. I reorganized and geocoded the data to match the city names with their (approximate) geographical locations, then used CartoDB to convert the table into a visual representation of the points. An interactive version of the map is available at http://cdb.io/1v4A74w.

lgbt map

I also made a few maps of the election results for Sangamon County, Illinois, but I’ll save those for another post.

IDOT spends $143k on zombie-themed seatbelt commercial

A souped-up late model Ford Mustang with a mounted rotary machine gun steals the show in IDOT’s zombie-themed seatbelt PSA featuring “Walking Dead” star Michael Rooker.

The Illinois Department of Transportation released an eight-minute, zombie-themed short film in September to promote seat belt use. It struck me as odd, so I obtained some documents through FOIA and reported on it. The ad featured Walking Dead actor Michael Rooker and had a similar feel to the popular zombie show. The story is here, and the video is below.

Black and white – On race, cops and traffic stops

Some white people think that just because the slaves were freed and the Jim Crow laws were repealed, racism in America is over. Ask almost any black person, however, and they’ll tell you a different story. We middle-class white people live in a different world from most black people, so sometimes it’s hard for us to comprehend why they feel our laws and society in general are discriminatory. My article “Black and white” deals with one small facet of that discrimination: traffic stops.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson of Springfield. Photo by Patrick Yeagle.

“Every time you pass a cop car, you’re always looking out your rearview mirror,” he said. “You don’t know if they’re going to pull you over, not because you have something on you or you’re doing something illegal, but because growing up, that’s what we’ve seen, and that’s what was happening to us.”

He says that paranoia creates a feeling of inequality, which is compounded by seeing a traffic courtroom full of people who already live in poverty paying hundreds of dollars in fines and court fees for minor traffic violations.

“You feel like there’s no hope, and it’s mentally damaging,” he said. “You carry that every day. Even now, if I see a cop, I look in the mirror. I hate it, but I do. I see my peers and other people in my culture do the same thing.”

The article didn’t solve any problems by any means, but I hope it gave some white people insight into the frustration that black people deal with in many aspects of life. This is the kind of reporting I enjoy the most; it’s challenging for me and hopefully for the reader, too.