Anthony Porter
  • Anthony Porter

Just as Andrew Wilson was the convicted killer whose case led to the revelation of systematic torture in the Chicago Police Department, Anthony Porter was the convicted killer whose case led to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. But there was one important difference between these two pivotal figures.

No one ever doubted Wilson was guilty of fatally shooting the two Chicago officers who stopped his Chevy Impala at 81st and Morgan one February afternoon in 1982. But after 16 years on death row for a double murder in a south-side park in 1982, once coming within 48 hours of being executed, Porter walked out of prison exonerated in 1999. Student journalists led by Medill professor David Protess had taken on his case, and not only had they cleared his name, they’d identified the real killer, who confessed.

Watching the jubilant moment on TV, Porter hoisting each of the young journalists in turn, Governor George Ryan muttered “How the hell does that happen?” and his unexamined support of the death penalty began to crumble. A year later he declared a moratorium on executions; leaving office in 2003 he commuted the sentence of everyone on death row; in 2011 Illinois formally abolished the death penalty.

Porter’s vindication is not only settled law, it’s settled legendry. But not everyone buys it. Fortunately for Porter, the noisiest of those who don’t is, you might say, the wrong people. James Sotos is an attorney who for years represented Jon Burge, the former Chicago police commander at the center of the torture scandal and now in prison. Sotos holds that Protess and his students botched their investigation of the Porter case, that he’s guilty as sin, and that Alstory Simon, despite confessing to the murders and later pleading guilty to them, is in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

State’s attorney Anita Alvarez, no friend or fan of Protess, has decided Sotos makes a case worth considering. She announced Monday that she’s ordered her Conviction Integrity Unit to review the Porter/Simon case yet again.

In 2006 the Tribune‘s Eric Zorn took a second look at the matter. He observed, ” “I believe that those behind the effort to free Anthony Porter are on the side of justice. . . . I believe that those behind the effort to re-open Simon’s case are interested only in discrediting the integrity of those whose work has attacked the criminal justice system.” Yet he concluded that Simon—who by now said he was railroaded—deserved a hearing for one good reason: the lawyer he wound up with back in 1999 was someone recommended to him by Protess’s professional investigator then, Paul Ciolino. That was a little rank, Zorn thought, and needed to be looked at.

But the state’s attorney’s office, then under Dick Devine, rejected Simon’s petition for a hearing. Curiously, the brief rejecting it was written by Celeste Stack, who now heads Alvarez’s new Conviction Integrity Unit and will have to decide if she agrees with herself.

Two years ago I was e-mailed a 100-page report on the 1982 murders of teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green in Washington Park, the crimes for which first Porter and now Simon have served time. It was written by William Crawford, a retired Tribune investigative reporter, and he was as blunt as he was thorough. “Our purpose here,” Crawford began, is “to set the record straight.” He aimed to get that record “in front of those men and women, in private and public office, who are in a position to begin at once the task of righting the colossal wrong that has taken place.”

I wrote a column that found what Crawford had to say intriguing but Crawford his own worst enemy—and perhaps Simon’s as well. Failing to get the sympathetic reaction from Medill that he hoped for, he made a pest of himself and finally sent its then dean, John Lavine, an typo-filled e-mail that concluded, “My writing, has been sent everywhere: U.s. atty., Madigan, cook county state’s attorye, justice department, every editorial writer. It ain’t going away. And again, my amigo will own you and your dip shit school.”

Less grateful to Crawford than Crawford might have hoped he’d be, Sotos persisted with the case no one wants to touch. And he made some headway. Last month Zorn wrote again about Simon, and though his position was pretty much the same, his tone of voice had changed. He observed that the contours of the Simon case are familiar to reporters who have an eye for tainted convictions.

“The witnesses against him in a 1982 double murder have recanted. His confession was obtained under duress and false pretenses. He never had a trial. And witnesses have identified a plausible alternate suspect.”

Yet because the him in this case was Simon, and the plausible alternative none other than Anthony Porter, “we have not re-examined Simon’s case with our trademark skepticism,” Zorn allowed. Yes, Simon’s story is hard to believe, and yes, his champions “seem more interested in playing gotcha than serving justice.” But that said, Simon deserves a hearing. “Such a review might end up to be embarrassing for a lot of people, including me,” Zorn went on. “But I’d rather be embarrassed than have an innocent man spend four more years in prison [Simon is scheduled to be released in 2017] because I joined the ranks of those afraid to ask myself the tough questions.”

In recent days I’ve been hearing almost daily from an ally of Sotos, Martin Preib, a cop and author who’s taking his own close look at the case. Preib sent me a copy of an article he’s written championing Simon, and a copy of Sotos’s October 8 letter to Alvarez asking her to review Simon’s conviction and release him. “No less than 7 people have identified Porter as either the shooter . . . or being in the [park] bleachers at the time of the shooting,” Sotos wrote. “Porter, by contrast, has consistently denied being at Washington Park on the day or night of the incident. None of those 7 individuals has said a word about Alstory Simon being present . . .

“Our client has been robbed of his freedom for 15 years as a result of Northwestern’s unbridled fabrication of false evidence against him, the professional misconduct of a free lawyer who was supplied to Alstory by his own accusers, the failure of the CCSA’s prior administration to stand up to Northwestern and the media by investigating the fabricated evidence against Alstory, and the refusal of the courts to take seriously the compelling evidence of Alstory’s innocence and Porter’s guilt. . . . Justice requires that the shameful charade be exposed and concluded.”

Sotos obviously knew who he was writing to: his ten-page letter includes a two-page digression into “Northwestern’s use of identical coercive tactics in several other cases.” In the Ford Heights Four case, he told Alvarez, Ciolino posed as a famous movie producer and promised a key witness money from a movie deal in exchange for his testimony; in the Anthony McKinney case, a recanting witness told prosecutors that a couple of Protess’s “female students had ‘come on’ to him, acting as if they were going to ‘give up some p***y if I would talk to them.'”

Alvarez presumably would welcome any fresh opportunity to show she had Protess pegged all along. When Protess’s Medill Innocence Project turned over the evidence it had developed that McKinney was innocent of the 1978 murder he’d been convicted of, instead of sifting through the material and deciding what it was worth, Alvarez in 2008 subpoenaed the students’ “notes, memoranda, reports and summaries.” This led to a legal showdown over the way the Innocence Project was run, with Medill first defending but ultimately repudiating Protess, leading to his resignation. Protess started and now heads the Chicago Innocence Project. But the vitriolic tangent Alvarez went off on exacted a price: McKinney died this August still waiting for a judge to consider his request for a new hearing on its merits.

Protess is well aware of the campaign to free Alstory Simon, and he’s contemptuous of it.

The “undisputed facts” Protess listed for me when I asked for his take, included Simon’s confession on videotape, his later confession in court to the chief judge of the criminal court, and the moment, covered by the Tribune, when he tearfully apologized to the mother of one victim.

“Does Sotos seriously believe that my journalism students, a private investigator and a defense attorney actively collaborated with Cook County prosecutors and the Chief Judge to railroad an innocent man?” Protess asked. “Does that sound rational? Yeah, if you believe the Earth is flat or God created humans 5,000 years ago.”