Finally, I wouldn’t have to report that Conroy now is “sometimes given to despair’’ and is seriously thinking about quitting journalism, even though in these perilous times journalism needs his kind more than ever.
Since this is not a fairy tale, but a nonfiction dispatch from the frontlines of twenty-first century American journalism, I have to tell you instead that Conroy, who recently turned fifty-nine, hasn’t had a full-time job since he was laid off in December 2007 by the Reader, Chicago’s free weekly alternative newspaper that used to come in four sections, choked with ads and listings, but now comes in only one. “For years a lot of journalists in town just didn’t take us seriously,’’ says Mike Lenehan, a former editor and part-owner of the Reader before it was sold in 2007. “We were just the free paper. In those days, ‘free paper’ was a stigma. John’s work changed that.’’
Since it was founded in 1971, Conroy did more, perhaps, than anyone in the paper’s fine lineup of writers to put the Reader on the map of serious journalism. There’s no question that Conroy did more than anyone else in all of journalism to expose police torture in Chicago. Conroy and the Reader kept the story alive for years until reinforcements arrived from the downtown dailies and a group of Northwestern University journalism students and their professor. Eventually, the efforts of Conroy and other journalists—especially Maurice Possley, Steve Mills, and Ken Armstrong from the Chicago Tribune, who broadened the story to include prosecutorial misconduct—defense lawyers, anti-death-penalty advocates, and a citizens’ police watchdog group convinced then-Illinois Governor George Ryan that the system was broken. In 2003, Governor Ryan emptied death row, sparing the lives of more than 160 condemned men and women, several of whom said their confessions were false and had been extracted through torture by a police commander named Jon Burge and his detectives inside a police station that came to be known, in some circles, as “the house of screams.’’
Jo Ann Patterson’s son Aaron, a gang member, was “interrogated’’ inside that station house before being convicted of double homicide. She has no doubt that her son would be dead today, executed for a crime he did not commit, if not for the long, lonely crusade of John Conroy. “John’s articles helped save Aaron’s life and showed how the system can really get you caught up,’’ she says. “But Aaron wasn’t the only one John saved. A lot of people owe him their thanks.’’
Over the years, the city has shelled out millions in legal fees and settlements, including nearly $20 million to Patterson’s son and three others arrested by Burge and his officers. In 2006, a special Cook County prosecutor’s investigation concluded that the commander and his men had obtained dozens of confessions through torture. “I can’t begin to tell you,’’ says Andrea D. Lyon, a criminal defense attorney and the author of Angel of Death Row, a memoir about her experience representing condemned prisoners, “what an enormous loss it is to not have someone like John doing the in-depth work he was doing.’’
Lyon says everyone involved in Chicago’s criminal justice system knew something was amiss at the Area 2 police headquarters on the city’s Far South Side, where most of the alleged torture took place. Prosecutors knew it. Judges knew. Reporters knew, too. But no one, she says, said or wrote anything about it until Conroy and maybe one or two others came along. “The groundwork came from John Conroy rolling that big stone up that steep hill,’’ she says. “He’s utterly trustworthy and honest. You don’t hand over your files to him if you think your guy is guilty. He’ll find a witness that maybe the prosecution couldn’t find. He’s patient, easy to talk to. He’s smart but not arrogant. He’s part of a dying breed, a real-life investigative reporter who cares. He’s an unsung hero.’’