“This was all about access, at least at the beginning,” said Frank Main, who with Mark Konkol and John S. Kim won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for the Chicago Sun-Times.
They wanted to be a “fly on the wall” to explain to the public, “Am I safer now than I was a year ago.” They shadowed two Area 5 homicide detectives on the West Side for months, with permission from police and newspaper officials.
They wanted to track the investigation of one death to the apprehension of a killer. It took a long time because, to begin with, they appeared to be a secret weapon to fight crime. No homicides occurred on their beat for more than a month. Police loved them! Eventually, they had a homicide to report on.
In their work over the years, they found a wall of silence among victims and witnesses who honor a “no snitching” code in Chicago. Konkol said they discovered that, of 40 shootings one weekend in 2008, one suspect was in jail still not convicted. The code of silence continues. A shooter is caught in 8 percent of the cases, with the conviction rate lower. Chief reasons: victims would not identify assailants or because a judge did not believe one felon, a victim, over another, a suspect.
Kim told the audience of about 30 that his months on the assignment did not sway him from being a journalist: you don’t want to be a cop or a crook. He surprised his colleagues by recording audio as well as still photos, putting together a separate show on the investigation.
Getting the Pulizer entry submitted was an ordeal, Konkol said. Sun-Times superiors did not believe they had a winner. Konkol persuaded his boss, Paul Saltzman, to enter while standing next to him in the men’s room. The deadline was Feb. 2, during the blizzard, and they had to struggle to find an open UPS office. Finally, they found one that had a “closed” sign, but an employee was outside on a cigarette break. They persuaded him to open up, and got their entry postmarked that day.
Konkol said winning the Pulitzer demonstrates that even a paper when shrinking “can still do good stuff.” He added, “It’s like winning a World Series, but you have to do it for yourself.” Main is looking for the next big scandal to investigate.
You can view the series at www.suntimes.com.