Wrongful convictions remain an issue of tremendous national concern. In 2012, the publication of the first national exoneration registry revealed nearly 1,000 exonerated individuals had been falsely convicted of serious crimes in the past 23 years. That number has grown to 1,606 as of this writing. Since 1999, The Medill Justice Project, which is part of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, has uncovered miscarriages of justice, contributing to the exonerations of several prisoners.
Last summer, The Medill Justice Project examined solitary confinement in the United States and the case of Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, a Louisiana State Penitentiary prisoner who is serving a life sentence for a murder he says he didn’t commit. We traveled to Angola and scored an exclusive, impromptu interview with Warden Burl Cain outside the prison gates. In the interview, Cain said Whitmore has been held in solitary confinement for 35 years largely due to his longstanding affiliation with the Black Panther Party, which he believes “advocates violence and racism,” and he would consider releasing Whitmore from solitary confinement if the Angola prisoner no longer represents a safety risk.
Immediately after interviewing Cain, we raced to a coffee shop in downtown Baton Rouge where we set up a mobile office and wrote a breaking news story with photos and video. The story was picked up by various outlets including The Lens, The New Orleans Advocate and the San Francisco Bay View and mentioned by Time magazine, among others. We then followed that lead to the home of the Black Panthers in northern California to interview former party members and verify the warden’s statements. Our story showed the Black Panthers, as an organization, has been dead for more than three decades, and former members maintain when the party did exist decades ago, it sought to defend its members against violence and racism. We also published an in-depth piece that examined solitary confinement on a national and international scale and highlighted the greater scrutiny it has come under recently.
Last fall, we continued to pursue the case, investigating Whitmore’s armed robbery and murder conviction in the 1973 killing of a former mayor in a small Louisiana town. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we obtained police records that included new information never raised at trial from about 40 years ago that calls into question his conviction. In our published multimedia investigation, we uploaded public records—including the police records we obtained—and embedded photos and videos that highlight other aspects of the case and feature interviews we conducted with key people. One of his lawyers said she plans to include The Medill Justice Project’s findings in Whitmore’s petition challenging his conviction—which hinged on a confession he made—and called the new information a Brady violation, a withholding of key evidence.