LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Nicholas Schmidle's article in this week's New Yorker magazine takes us back to a time in Chicago, when crime was considerably worse than what we see in today's headlines. Back in the early 1990s, gangs ruled the projects. People would throw trash from the buildings onto the police cars below. It was a war. Schmidle notes that in those bad old days, detectives put top priority on solving a particular murder of a popular college student and athlete. And the article asks the question, did the pressure to solve this case lead Chicago police to the wrong person? Nicholas Schmidle joins us to talk about his story and what it says about police work in Chicago. Welcome to our program.
NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE: Thanks for having me on Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, central to this story is the police concept of the heater. Perhaps you should introduce us to that. What is a heater?
SCHMIDLE: The volume of cases that the Chicago Police Department was working at this time was just extraordinary. And in some of these more difficult neighborhoods to operate in, many of these cases just went unsolved. But then there were heater cases and heater cases were those that drew media attention and pressure from the top, from the police department - senior levels of the police department and the Chicago government to solve these cases.
WERTHEIMER: Could you maybe just give us a little thumbnail sketch of what was involved in this case? The victim was Marshall Morgan. He was murdered.
SCHMIDLE: Right. He disappeared the day before Mother's Day 1993 - May 8. He had taken his mother's car to get washed and never came back. He was found a week later in the car, mostly nude with gunshot wounds to the stomach. There were some fingerprints that had been recovered from some of the beer cans and beer bottles in the front of the car. And those led the investigators off on their chase.
WERTHEIMER: And the chase ended with a man named Hood.
SCHMIDLE: Correct, the fingerprints were traced to Tyrone Hood. Tyrone Hood was 30 years old, at the time - had a mild, modest criminal record from earlier in his youth, but seemed to have been getting himself back on the right track. But the fingerprints spoke for themselves. And so the police questioned him twice before arresting him and charging him with Marshall Morgan Jr.'s murder. Now, he had a codefendant who had confessed to murdering Marshall Morgan Jr., along with Tyrone Hood. That man served seven years and then was paroled. He had been coerced physically and he would claim after he was out that his confession had been beaten out of him.
WERTHEIMER: So the suggestion of your piece is that since this case was hot, it had to be solved. And it may not have mattered what really happened as long as there was some sort of public resolution and arrest, a conviction.
SCHMIDLE: That's correct. I mean, that's the other sort of indication that this was a heater case. I mean, when the murder rate in Chicago was what it was - I think at that point, they were averaging about three murders a day. And so not all of those murders either led to arrests and certainly didn't lead to press conferences. This one did.
WERTHEIMER: Now, all these years later, times have changed. Cases in Cook County have been overturned on DNA evidence, on evidence of police malfeasance, even torture, forced confessions. But this case has not moved. Why is that?
SCHMIDLE: This is the first case that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office - they set up a Conviction Integrity Unit in early 2012. And this was to be first case that they reviewed. And they spent several months reviewing it. And at the end, they decided not to act on it, which to Tyrone Hood's lawyers and to a number of independent observers just was baffling.
WERTHEIMER: That does leave us with a powerful impression that this Conviction Integrity Unit doesn't seem to be functioning.
SCHMIDLE: That's the crux, the question, because the Integrity Unit has allowed some individuals to walk. But why it doesn't is the big question. And I think it almost in some ways goes back to the heater case description, which is that this office and this police department responds to public pressure.
WERTHEIMER: So what happens to this man?
SCHMIDLE: Right now, he has one post-conviction petition option left open to him. He has exhausted his appeal options. His lawyers have filed a post-conviction petition which is the sort of last gasp in his position. A judge has allowed a single evidentiary hearing to proceed, after one of the witnesses admitted that he had been paid by police to say what he had said. The other thing that potentially could let Tyrone Hood walk free, of course, is if the real murderer confessed.
WERTHEIMER: Now, you've just spent weeks and weeks reading testimony, talking to witnesses, trying to go back over this investigation and understand what happened. Do you walk away with any kind of hope at all for the system?
SCHMIDLE: It certainly does leave you feeling a bit cynical. One of the investigators, who culled incriminating statements against Tyrone Hood from several witnesses, has at least 38 police misconduct allegations that have been made against him. Now, he would tell me that he worked 800 murder cases over the course of his career and that only a few, you know, shouldn't tarnish the others. But yeah, you have to wonder if someone is willing to physically intimidate or psychologically intimidate statements out of one witness or one defendant, what prevents him from doing it in other cases? So that's not to cast aspersions on all 800. But it does leave a cloud of suspicion and question over those. And I think that's something that also contributes to the State's Attorney's Office's reluctance to overturn this case - which is that if they do that, all of the other cases become suspect.
WERTHEIMER: Nicholas Schmidle is a staff reporter at the New Yorker magazine. His story "Crime Fiction" is in this week's issue. Nicholas Schmidle, thank you very much.
SCHMIDLE: Thank you Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.