In a new feature in The Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley recounts how his investigative reporting of an Illinois murder case helped prove a man’s innocence after a 20 year nightmare. Together, with fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner reporter Steve Mills, Possley uncovered evidence while the pair reported for the Chicago Tribune that Daniel Taylor was not guilty of the murders for which he was serving a life sentence.
Taylor wrote to Mills from prison in the summer of 2001 when the Chicago Tribune was in the midst of an investigation into false and coerced confessions, which is what ultimately led to Taylor’s wrongful conviction. By that December, the reporters discovered that Taylor was in police custody for disorderly conduct at the time the murders took place and his confession was false.
I had never been so confident of a convicted defendant’s innocence. And I never imagined nearly 12 years would pass before Cook County prosecutors would admit the truth and dismiss his conviction. But it finally happened. On June 28, 2013, Daniel, who was arrested at age 17, was released at age 38, having spent more than 20 years behind bars.
Possley recalls the first time he and Mills met Taylor in jail and the difference between his version of events and what the police claimed to have happened on the night the double murder occurred for which Taylor and seven other juveniles were convicted. The reporters kept the case in the news and Possley remained committed to proving Taylor’s innocence even after he left the Tribune in 2008 and moved to California to work as a researcher for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University Law School. Mills also continued to travel hundreds of miles on his own time to visit Taylor behind bars. The case was eventually taken up by attorneys at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.
All of the hard work and dedication paid off on June 28 when Cook County prosecutors granted a motion to vacate Taylor’s conviction and dropped the murder charges against him. Since Taylor’s release, he has been living in an apartment in a Chicago suburb with his brother and his niece.
I recently traveled from California to Northwestern to meet with Daniel in person for the first time in 13 years. He hugged me—the tightest hug I’ve ever gotten—and whispered, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” When he let go, I wiped away the tears and we sat down to talk.
Sitting across from me in the conference room at Northwestern, Daniel paused to reflect.
“Air is air, you know?” he said after a few moments. “But the air I breathed in when I walked out that door was totally different. Really, I lack the vocabulary to explain it. I am really out.” He smiled broadly. “I am really free.”
Possley is now the senior researcher at The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law School and Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.