The headline to my column in this week’s Reader asks a question, “Did the Innocence Project Spring a Killer?” that the text doesn’t answer.

That’s why, on second thought, I’ve changed the headline online. I don’t know the answer the original headline posed, but I think it’s probably no. Here’s what more I can tell you.

Sprung was Anthony Porter, whose release in 1999 after years on Death Row prompted then governor George Ryan to rethink his assumptions about capital punishment. Confessing to the 1982 double murder Porter had originally been convicted of was Alstory Simon. But today, Simon’s lawyer, James Sotos, insists Simon is innocent despite that confession and that Porter is guilty, despite his exoneration by David Protess’s Medill Innocence Project. Sotos’s case is laid out in some hundred pages of analysis written by William Crawford, a retired Tribune investigative reporter.

Why is Crawford so sure Porter is guilty and Simon innocent? His analysis relies far too much on pugnacity and sarcasm to persuade anyone else half as much as it’s persuaded him. But he does give us reason to think the original case against Porter might have been stronger than anyone who knows of the case only by its reputation supposes — and that Protess’s team of investigators (most of them students) did a rather superficial job of looking into it.

But Crawford’s strongest argument is implied: Porter is guilty because Simon is innocent. And in trying to get readers to accept the idea that Simon would confess to a murder he didn’t commit, Crawford accuses the Innocence Project of manipulation and misrepresentation — the kind of tactics Protess is now being held accountable for, as in this long article in Thursday’s Tribune, and this one in Wednesday’s Daily Northwestern.

Crawford describes, largely in Simon’s words, a visit to Simon’s home in Milwaukee by Paul Ciolino, a private investigator for the Innocence Project. Crawford writes:

.Barely conscious, Simon was awakened from his stupor around 6:30 a.m. by two men, armed with guns, who identified themselves as ‘police investigators’ from Illinois. They accused Simon of having murdered two individuals years ago in Chicago’s Washington Park.

The uninvited guests [Ciolino and an assistant] told Simon that Inez [Jackson], his ex-wife, and “other witnesses” had signed statements alleging that Simon had indeed committed the murders. Despite protestations from Simon that the two men were “crazy” and that they leave his house at once, Simon said the two so-called police investigators then slapped a video into a portable player. As the tape rolled, a black male appeared on the screen, claiming to have been a witness to the Washington Park murders. The unidenfied man — who much later would be found to have been an actor hired and scripted by Ciolino — said Simon was the triggerman.

Simon’s intruders then piled on. After playing the video and producing a copy of Inez’s signed affidavit, and that of her nephew, Walter Jackson, and others also incriminating Simon, Ciolino pulled a pink rabbit out of a black hat. The private eye glanced into a mirror hanging on Simon’s wall and spotted a news report flashing across Simon’s TV, which was otherwise not viewable. The TV was turned to Milwaukeee’s CBS station, which was broadcasting a news report in which Inez is seen asserting that Simon had committed the murders…

The surreal, outrageous events unfolding around Simon that morning, in his own home, triggered a well of fear within.

“Ciolino kept tell me that they had all the evidence they needed to convict me. That I was going to go down for these murders and end up on Death Row, and there was nothing I could do about it. After seeing this story on TV, I was no longer just angry, I was scared to death. For the first time, I believed that I was actually going to be charged with committing the murders,” Simon stated in a sworn affidavit.

Now the icing on the cake. Ciolino told Simon that all Protess wanted was to free Porter, that when Porter got out, millions of dollars would be flying around from book deals, Hollywood movies and the like. And Simon would be sharing in the largesse. Simon had to move quickly, however, because Chicago police were on their way to Milwaukee at that very moment to arrst Simon and return him to Chicago in chains to face the music.

“He [Ciolino] convinced me that he was actually trying to help me by giving me a way out before the police got to my house to arrest me. He said that if I gave a statement saying I did the crimes in self-defense, that he would get me a free lawyer, that the professor would make it so I would only have to serve a short time in prison, and that when I got out, I’d be taken care of financially and would not have to work again,” Simon alleged.

If Simon agreed and confessed, Ciolino promised Simon that a Chicago lawyer, a veteran member of the defense bar by the name of Jack Rimland, would take Simon’s case. And Rimland would take it free of charge. Simple as pie.”

And Simon, who’d been insisting on his innocence, eventually “caved.”

To underscore his account, Crawford quotes from a laudatory 2002 Chicago magazine profile of Ciolino by Bryan Smith. Here’s Smith’s account of Ciolino’s showdown with Simon:

Ciolino has been threatened with subpoenas and indictments more times than he can count by people who make their living finding reasons to throw people in jail. As a result, he knows he has to do everything by the book.

He danced close to the edge in the Porter case in getting Alstory Simon, the suspected real killer, to confess to the murder.

Showing up unannounced at Simon’s house in Milwaukee, Ciolino said that he was a private investigator and that he had a videotape of a witness who said Simon had committed the Washington Park murders. The “witness” was actually an employee of Ciolino’s. Watching the bogus video, Simon remarked, “Man, that guy wasn’t there. He ain’t no witness.”

‘Yeah?” Ciolino shot back. “How do you know that if you weren’t there?” At that point, recalls Ciolino, “he looked at me like, ‘Why did I open my mouth?”‘ Afterwards, Ciolino convinced Simon that if he confessed on tape, things would go easier for him. “We just bull-rushed him, and mentally he couldn’t recover,” Ciolino says.

So there was a phony videotape of a “witness” to the murders. And as my article mentions, Simon did wind up with Jack Rimland as an attorney. And he got 37 years not two.

So was Crawford wrong about any part of this encounter?

Ciolino calls it a “fairy tale.”

There was no mention of two years, no mention of a movie deal, he says. Simon asked for the name of a lawyer and Rimland was one of three names Ciolino gave him. The CBS newscast, which Crawford suggests was a setup, was “just dumb luck.” But it was because Inez Jackson had confessioned on TV the night before that Ciolino visited Simon early the next morning. “You go late at night or early in morning. If I’m up there at noon, [by then] Inez has a couple of bullet holes in the back of her head,” Ciolino says.

He tells me he happened to run into Simon in prison years later. Simon thanked him for doing him a favor. “I’m out of here in 15 years [with good behavior],” Simon said. Ciolino says to me, “Porter was going to be smoked! Somebody think Rimland did a bad job for him!” He goes on, “I’ll tell you what I’ll tell anyone else. If anyone thinks I’d tell a lie for Anthony Porter they don’t know anything about me. I’ve yet to meet the guy I’m willing to fall on my sword for. I didn’t care about Anthony Porter particularly as a person. It was all about what happened. And there was no way Anthony Porter committed that murder. Alstory did that murder, there ain’t no question about it.”

I should add one thing. Paul Meincke of Channel Seven visited Simon in prison back in 2006 and reported that Inez Jackson now claimed “she was coached and coaxed into fingering her husband with promises of money from future book and movie deals on the Anthony Porter story. As for Simon himself, Meincke tells me today that he came away from Simon’s cell “with the distinct impression he could have been telling the truth. He seemed to be fairly genuine.” Meincke says a photographer with him had the same reaction.