May 01, 2009

La Salle reporter wins feature writing contest

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Jailhouse interviews profiling a man suspected in the slayings of an elderly La Salle County couple is the judges’ top choice in the annual Polly Robinson Feature Writing Contest at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Kevin Caufield, a county reporter with the News-Tribune in La Salle, used a series of exclusive interviews with accused murderer Keith Mackowiak to piece together a portrait for readers. The story, “Profile of an Accused Killer,” appeared Nov. 24, 2008, and weaves together interviews with Mackowiak and others who know him. Mackowiak faces charges in the July 2007 slayings of Aloysius and Catherine Twardowski in the couple’s home, just outside of Seneca.

The interviews provide Mackowiak an opportunity to explain why he initially pleaded guilty to the crimes, only to change his plea. Mackowiak is awaiting trial on the charges pending completion of a psychological evaluation, Caufield said. Prosecutors in La Salle County subpoenaed Caufield as a witness in Mackowiak’s fitness hearing as a result of the interviews.

This is the second time in four years Caufield received the feature-writing award. He won in 2006 and finished second in 2007. Caufield receives $150 for his effort.

“I’m very humbled to have done so well in this contest because I know I am competing against some very talented journalists throughout the state,” Caufield said. “I hope that my recent success in this contest helps preserve Polly’s memory. I also look forward to competing in future contests, and encourage others to do so as well.”

The School of Journalism administers the contest in memory of Polly Robinson, a 1978 SIUC journalism graduate and award-winning feature writer and photographer at Tazewell Publications in Morton who died in November 1979. Her parents, the late Warren and Doris Robinson, established the contest in April 1980.

This year’s contest drew approximately 25 entries from Illinois newspapers with circulations of 100,000 or less.

A poignant piece that looks at the stark realities of a felony conviction in Illinois, “Life After Felony,” took second place. Court reporter Edith Brady-Lunny of The Pantagraph in Bloomington told of hardships convicted felons face in finding jobs and locating housing through their eyes in the Nov. 30, 2008 story. Brady-Lunny receives $75.

She also talked with prosecutors, defense attorneys and a retired judge about the dilemma a felony conviction brings. As part of her story, Brady-Lunny talked with a 21-year-old Bloomington woman convicted of felony misuse of a credit card for taking $60 from a friend’s debit card to repay a bill. The woman is an assistant manager at a food service business and aspires to go to college, but the felony conviction resulted in a student loan rejection. Potential employers also turned the woman away upon learning of the conviction.

“It’s like they expect people to go to jail, learn their lesson, come out and change,” the woman told Brady-Lunny. “But the minute you come out, you can’t change because no one is allowing you to do that.”

A profile of a popular Normal Community High School chemistry teacher and his life-changing three-year battle with pancreatitis took third place. Health editor Paul Swiech of The Pantagraph in Bloomington told of Dave Nelson’s struggles and the efforts by Nelson and his family in the wake of his October 2005 outpatient gallstone surgery in “Fighting for his Life.” The story appeared Nov. 17, 2008. Swiech receives $50.

Senior reporter Theresa Churchill of the Herald & Review in Decatur earned an honorable mention certificate for her Aug. 31, 2008, story, “Life Through the Shadows,” profiling the dedication of teachers and family who help a 9-year-old boy with autism learn Bible lessons.