Almost a decade ago, a group of detectives waited anxiously for their civil trial to begin.
This trial was their final opportunity to show the public that the man they arrested in 1987 for an arson that killed seven people, including two children, was guilty. Despite the fact that the offender, Madison Hobley, had been released by Governor Ryan, the detectives were certain that they could show, once again, that Hobley was the killer.
And so they prepared for months with their attorney. Their willingness to go to trial is hardly the behavior of detectives who had framed a man.
They gathered every document, every witness statement, every diagram they could muster to show what a jury and several appeals courts had already determined: that Hobley set the fire outside the door of his own apartment on a winter night, first spreading a pool of gasoline outside the door and then down the stairwell, where he ignited it.
The fire spread swiftly, pouring smoke and heat upwards that trapped many residents on the upper floors. Seven died, some because they went toward the fire to rescue loved ones. Many others were badly injured jumping from the upper floors. Some children were tossed to people on the ground below.
When detectives found Hobley at his mother’s house the following morning he was initially a witness, though it seemed strange that he made it out of the building when his wife and son did not. But what motive would a man have to set his own place on fire with his child inside?
Well, it turned out, Hobley did have a motive. Caught up in a love triangle between his wife and a mistress, Hobley wanted to be with the mistress but could not abide the notion of any other man being with his wife. So distraught was Hobley, he decided to set the fire to kill his wife. He walked to the nearest gas station where two witnesses observed him fill a gas can and walk back in the direction of the fire.
Hobley’s claims about him escaping the fire could not withstand the forensic evidence. The detectives asked Hobley to take a lie detector test. He took it and failed. The person who gave him the test told him he didn’t think Hobley was telling the truth. Hobley then broke down and confessed to setting the fire. He then confessed to the detectives again, providing details that eventually matched the witness statements by the two men at the gas station and matched the forensic evidence.
Hobley was tried and convicted, then sentenced to death by the jury, even though he had no criminal record. After all, here was a man who intentionally set his own wife and child on fire. He joined a group of men on death row who gathered together and contrived stories about being tortured into confessing by Jon Burge and his men. The detectives who worked the Hobley case had worked with Burge.
Based on this claim, wrongful conviction zealots were able somehow to manipulate Ryan into pardoning Hobley.
In watching Hobley slowly move from death row to being an exonerated man, the detectives had witnessed a central truth of their time: Criminal cases were moved out of the courtroom and into a media machine working hand in hand with the wrongful conviction movement.
Slowly but surely, this media pressure, spearheaded by a few activist journalists and editors, gained in strength. They could, and did, intimidate prosecutors into releasing offenders they knew were guilty and indicting people they knew were innocent. They could, and did, compel crooked governors to release offenders without any new evidence. They could, and did, intimidate aldermen, mayors, and city attorneys to do their bidding and settle massive lawsuits, even when those officials knew the lawsuits were false.
When anyone challenged the legitimacy of these claims, the media machine, bolstering the wrongful conviction movement, attacked them like a pack of wolves.
But the detectives in the Hobley case had one encouraging event that kept up their spirits. Detectives in the Anthony Porter case had faced the same kind of civil trial a few years earlier. Those detectives had been accused of conspiring to frame Anthony Porter for a double murder. When Porter was released and filed his inevitable civil lawsuit for millions, the detectives desperately fought to take the case to court. They did, and won, their attorney arguing not that the detectives were innocent, but that Porter was guilty, despite the fact that he had been exonerated.
A sign of the media “mafia” that was taking shape in the city revealed itself clearly in the Porter case. Despite the detectives’ victory, members of the media who had written about Porter being innocent did not reconsider their take on the case. Most people would feel terrible that they had perpetuated a false story that had released a killer and incarcerated an innocent man. But not the media mafia in Chicago.
Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, a kind of don in this new mafia, who didn’t even sit in on the civil trial and hear the evidence, assailed the attorney for the detectives for claiming Porter was still guilty. He also said in a column that Porter was innocent, despite the trial. It was a chilling sign of how the media mafia was coming to control the legal system.
But it wasn’t to be for the detectives in the Hobley case; they would never have a chance for their day in court. Right before their case was to go to trial, they were informed that the city had secretly settled with Hobley’s attorneys. Hobley, a mass murderer, would ultimately become a millionaire.
This settling of Hobley’s attorneys rather than going to trial was the moment when the criminal justice system in Chicago completely, and possibly irrevocably, succumbed to Zorn’s media mafia.
In doing so, the detectives throughout the department knew something the rest of the city is coming to learn too slowly, and perhaps too late. This media mafia was not simply undermining the city’s criminal justice system. It would slowly threaten the republic itself.
The detectives knew all the way back in 1999 what is crystal clear today: There is no such thing as a fair trial for the police in the Crooked City.
Martin Preib is a Chicago Police Officer and writer. His first book, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City, was published by the University of Chicago Press. His second book, Crooked City, is available on Amazon. His articles have appeared in Playboy, The Chicagoan, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and New City. He is currently working on his third book about former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and an arson in 1987, titled Burn Patterns.