death penalty

nthony Porter was 50 hours away from being executed for a crime he did not commit when got a stay of execution in 1999.
chicago tribune article

In March of this year, current Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislations outlawing the death penalty and commuting the death sentences of 15 inmates on death row. In his signing statement he said, “It is impossible to create a perfect system, one that is free of all mistakes, free of all discrimination with respect to race or economic circumstance or geography. To have a consistent, perfect death penalty system, I have concluded, after looking at everything I’ve been given, that that’s impossible in our state. I think it’s the right and just thing to abolish the death penalty."

The decision came not because of liberal handwringing or newfound compassion, it came in part because an investigative team of reporters at the Chicago Tribune, including UC Santa Barbara alumnus Steve Mills (’81), had methodically proven in a succession of in-depth series that death penalty cases throughout the U.S. were fraught with procedural, evidentiary and prosecutorial errors. In effect, after investigating death penalty cases from Texas to Florida to Illinois, Mills and his colleagues found that there are systemic problems with imposing death and the rate of mistaken convictions are incredibly high.

Mills and his colleagues looked at 285 death penalty cases; every single death sentence handed down in Illinois during the past 25 years. The five-part series that resulted in 1999 was credited by Gov. George Ryan with helping him make the decision to place a moratorium on executions in Illinois.

What they found was troubling: 33 times defendants were represented by attorneys who had been disbarred or suspended; 35 black defendants were convicted by all-white juries; 20 cases involved forensic evidence not admissible in most U.S. jurisdictions; and 46 cases involved jailhouse informants, a type of testimony that is often unreliable.

“What we did was bring a statistical analysis to the death penalty,” Mills explained earlier this year as he attended a reception in Chicago for students accepted to UC Santa Barbara from Illinois. “The only way to get reform was to be dispassionate. It was all about what made the cases.” While others took the track of anecdotal stories about death penalty flaws, Mills and his colleagues studied the facts of each case and determined that significant misconduct seemed to permeate many of the cases.

In 2000, Mills took his pad and pen to Texas, where he and his colleagues examined the 131 executions carried out while George Bush was governor. What the investigation found was that in nearly one-third of the cases the defense attorney had been sanctioned for misconduct; in 40 cases the defense presented no evidence or only one witness at the sentencing hearing; in 29 cases prosecutors introduced psychiatric evidence that the American Psychiatric Association has condemned as unethical or untrustworthy.

Mills' work has brought him numerous journalism awards, including the Public Service Reporting Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation. He is a three time finalist for the Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest award, though he is fondest of his award from Colby College: The Elijah Parrish Lovejoy honorary law degree. Lovejoy, Mills explained, is “the first martyr of the First Amendment,” murdered by a pro-slavery mob because of his passionate abolitionist writings in the 1800s.

The work of the Tribune team has also spawned a documentary, entitled “At the Death House Door.” Part of the film focuses on the execution of Carlos De Luna, a case that Mills exhaustively investigated. There is strong evidence from Mills’ reporting suggesting De Luna was wrongly executed.

steve mills

Like many UC Santa Barbara alumni, Mills traces his passion and journalistic skills back to his alma mater. It was his professors who “fueled my interest in writing and writing well. In particular, he points to the influence of the late English professor Frank Gardiner. It was Gardiner and other faculty “who encouraged me to think and to think deeply. There are times I think I’m a good reporter because I’ve carried that lesson of thinking deeply.”

He traces his passion for social justice to his parents and also to the time he spent at UC Santa Barbara. “I’ve come to realize that a lot of what made me the kind of reporter I am took root there.”

Mills' work has made a huge difference. “We’ve changed laws. We’ve gotten innocent people out of prison. People who did not have their freedom.

“We also changed the way the death penalty was talked about. It is about accuracy and fairness, (not) winning the debate about right and wrong.”

UCSB Alumni Association logo Membership | Online Community | Programs + Services | Giving | News + Events | Get Involved