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(Credit: Chicago Tribune, screenshot)

“Three prominent journalists” sent Judge James Zagel letters backing William Cellini, the Chicago Tribune reported. There were in total 364 letters “testifying to Cellini’s good character and seeking leniency,” Chicago Now‘s Dennis Byrne noted.

Cellini was convicted in 2011 of “conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding and abetting in the solicitation of a bribe” but “acquitted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and attempted extortion,” according to the Chicago Tribune’s article at the time.  His arrests were part of “the Operation Board Games probe that also snared former Gov. Rod Blagojevich,” a recent Tribune report noted.

According to Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, U.S. attorney Gary Shapiro defended the journalists’ right to send letters on Cellini’s behalf, saying “they’re entitled to state their opinions” and he “would never condemn them for taking a position they actually believe in.”  Zorn wrote that the journalists’ “names are in a sealed file.”

Zorn challenged Shapiro’s position and called for the journalists in question to “come clean, turn in their press passes and find another line of work.”  He added:

“We are observers, not players. We don’t have skin in the game, or if we do, we’re quick to disclose it.

“It’s OK for us to write 100 thunderous columns about what a prince of a man Bill Cellini is despite his missteps and how he accordingly deserves extra mercy from the court (or 100 columns urging the book be thrown at him), but utterly wrong for us to write similar sentiments in one letter to a judge, particularly if we think the judge will recognize our names and give our views extra weight because we’re journalists.”

Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner countered that despite knowing journalists sent letters, “we don’t know what the letters said.” For example, Miner posited they may have said

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“I have damned this man a million times in print and he deserves to rot in hell. But there was the dark and stormy night decades ago when he stopped on the road and helped my sainted grandmother change a tire, and my conscience commands me to say so. I would say so in print but I have been reduced to blogging and no one reads my blog.”

Similarly, Chicago Now wrote that the journalists’ relationship with Cellini might have been during “childhood” or unrelated to journalism.  Or, the relationship could be less clean, Chicago Now suggested.  “Maybe there was a quid pro quo. Maybe, as Kass suggests, a close personal relationship between Cellini and the Chicago Three, accounted for Cellini escaping the kind of close journalistic examination that he so long deserved.”

iMediaEthics notes that we don’t know much about the journalists beyond the description of them as “prominent.”  The journalists could be food journalists, or journalists who don’t live locally, and like Chicago Now suggested, knew Cellini from childhood.

Noting that he once “wrote a letter to a judge speaking well of a defendant,” who was a friend, Chicago Reader’s Miner argued that he doesn’t think he did “something seriously wrong.”

And, in response to Miner’s post, Zorn again wrote on the matter, agreeing that “we don’t know the circumstances that prompted the Cellini Three to write their letters” and invited the journalists to “show his letter and plead his case.”

iMediaEthics has asked Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee chairman Kevin Smith and Stephen J.A. Ward for their thoughts on the presented issue of journalists petitioning a judge. We’ll update with any response.

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3 Chicago Journalists Petitioned for William Cellini, Convicted of Conspiracy, Is it OK?

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