It was Guinther vs. Rendell, and guess who won?
In 1981 a mobster named Steve Booras and a female companion were executed gangland-style in a South Philadelphia restaurant. A great outcry arose to find the killer and bring him to justice.
In theory, taxpayers hire police and prosecutors to perform these functions. But in practice, police and prosecutors often make mistakes, especially when they're under pressure. So instead of finding the killer, Philadelphia's justice system found and prosecuted a wimpy furniture salesman named Neil Ferber, who had no record of violent crime and no particular motive for the killing.
The cornerstone of district attorney Ed Rendell's case against Ferber was the testimony of a convicted criminal named Jerry Jordan, who apparently testified for the prosecution in the hope that Rendell's office would help reduce his prison sentence. When Jordan flunked a lie- detector test, Rendell's office, rather than acknowledging its error, made no effort to divulge this tidbit. The lie-detector test wasn't discovered until nearly three years later by Ferber's posttrial attorney.
As a result, Ferber was convicted, sentenced to die, sent to death row and nearly executed for a crime he almost certainly didn't commit, while the real killer of Steve Booras remained at large, immune from prosecution.
Into this situation stepped John Guinther, a freelance journalist who worked alone out of a shabby office on Chestnut Street. Guinther got wind of the framing of Ferber in 1983, began investigating it, and determined to challenge the verdict.
On the surface, this notion was audacious: Then, as now, Rendell enjoyed tremendous popularity, not to mention the coercive power of the state, a huge staff and a budget in the millions. By contrast, Guinther--who died last week at 77--lacked a constituency, a budget or any major institutional connection.
But in retrospect, Guinther did indeed enjoy a few advantages, like truth, courage, persistence, an inquisitive mind, a talented typewriter and a rare ability to perceive the moral forest beyond the procedural trees.
Late in 1983 Guinther laid out the case for Ferber's innocence in an exhaustive article in Philadelphia magazine. When Rendell's office failed to respond, Guinther revisited the Ferber case four times over the next two years in columns he wrote for the Welcomat (now Philadelphia Weekly). Guinther pursued the Ferber case with such zeal that I suspect Rendell and his people were ultimately persuaded that this particular mistake couldn't be swept under the rug.
The last of these articles--"An Innocent Man on Death Row"--appeared Dec. 18, 1985--two weeks before Rendell left office. The next day WWDB radio talk show host Irv Homer read G uinther's entire article on the air. Eight days after that, Rendell's office administered a second lie detector test to its key witness, Jordan. When Jordan again flunked the test, Rendell asked the judge to overturn Ferber's conviction, and the judge did so.
Even after Ferber was set free, Guinther continued his campaign, calling on police to track down the real Booras killer, and even speculating in print about the true killer's identity. But no further arrest for the Booras killings was ever made.
Now it's possible that John Guinther's one-man crusade had nothing to do with Rendell's decision to seek a new trial for Neil Ferber. It's also possible that the Phillies will win the World Series this year. But let's consider the motivations that operated in this case.
Guinther was driven throughout the Ferber case by an abstract passion for justice. Rendell, by contrast, was motivated by public perceptions of him and his office. When it suited Rendell's political and bureaucratic interest to insist that Ferber was guilty, he did so; Rendell did not call for a new trial until that suited his political interest. And his interests changed largely because Guinther's writings made them change.
The Ferber case was merely the high point of a long career Guinther spent shining his spotlight on injustice. On at least two other occasions I know of, his writings helped free innocent men from life prison sentences.
His primary weapon was his keen perception that politicians don't fulfill the terms of their public contracts unless a squeaky wheel demands to be oiled. Anyone who believes a single ordinary private citizen can't make a difference in society never met a very squeaky and very talented wheel named John Guinther.
Dan Rottenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Philadelphia author and journalist. He edited the Welcomat, Philadelphia Weekly's predecessor, from 1981 to 1993.
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