David Protess
  • John H. White/Sun-Times Media
  • David Protess

PR consultant Dan Curry doesn’t think he coined the dismissive expression “innocence industry,” though he’s not sure where he heard it earlier, but he puts the putdown to good use on his website, What Really Happened in Paris, (Illinois). As I note in this week’s column in the print Reader, the “innocence industry” as described by Curry comprises lawyers, investigators, journalists, and Northwestern University, all working together to spring convicted killers whether they’re really innocent or not.

I might be one of those journalists. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a Bleader post about a campaign to clear the name of Alstory Simon, who’s in prison after confessing to the double murder for which Anthony Porter spent 16 years on death row before Medill professor David Protess and some of his students got him sprung in 1999. One reader was most unhappy with the results. I won’t quote from his e-mail because he said it was off the record, but the gist was that I’m one of the most dishonest reporters in Chicago.

This week’s column focuses on Curry’s services to a prominent Paris, Illinois, businessman named Robert Morgan, who may have had absolutely nothing to do with a brutal double murder in Paris in 1986, but in the view of certain innocence industry cabalists deserved closer scrutiny than he ever got. Again Protess and his students got involved, and by 2005, when CBS’s 48 Hours came to town, Randy Steidl, one of the two local men convicted of the murders, was out of prison and the other, Herb Whitlock, had a figurative foot out the cell door (though he wouldn’t be sprung until 2008). Morgan retained Curry to defend his good name; and even then—a few years before the troubles that led to Medill’s repudiating Protess, who resigned in 2011—Curry decided that invoking Protess was a good way to go. Already Alstory Simon’s new attorneys were active on his behalf; so Curry wrote CBS a letter letting the network know that “a new and explosive post-conviction petition” had just been filed alleging “that Protess, his investigator, and an attorney, in effect ‘framed’ an innocent man in order to trigger the Porter exoneration.” Curry reminded CBS that Protess had “pointed the finger at our client” in an earlier 48 Hours report on the Paris murders (in 2000, though Curry’s letter said 2001), and if he were allowed to point it again and then the Porter petition turned out to be true, would you really want to have relied on this “discredited individual”?

CBS identified Morgan by name in 2005 despite Curry’s efforts, and the petition he warned CBS against went nowhere. But Simon and his attorneys are still at it, and they’ve had better luck in round two.

Because of space limitations, my new column focuses on Curry. The point I want to make here is that he has company. The “innocence industry,” such as it is, has a clear counterpart outside its gates—what I’ll call the guilty-no-matter-what-anyone-says camp. Curry was a fledgling member in 1995, when he called me to respond to a Tribune editorial ripping his then boss, Illinois attorney general Jim Ryan. As the state’s attorney of DuPage County, his previous job, Ryan had repeatedly prosecuted Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez for the murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico even as the case against them fell apart. When a judge finally cut Cruz loose for good, the Tribune‘s disgusted editorial page editor, Don Wycliff, pounded out a screed asserting that no one involved in the prosecution was fit for public office. (Nevertheless, when Ryan ran for governor in 2002, the Tribune endorsed him.)

Curry was on the line to speak up for his boss and disparage Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who’d been crusading for Cruz and Hernandez for years.

Who are other campers? There’s John Pearman, a lawyer working in the attorney general’s office when Curry met him and now Curry’s partner in the PR firm Reverse Spin and in the What Really Happened website. And there are attorneys Jim Sotos and Terry Ekl.

When Ryan stepped down as state’s attorney he was succeeded by Joe Birkett, who showed no more interest than Ryan had in calling off the hounds chasing Cruz. Ekl, who’d been a county prosecutor, managed Birkett’s election campaign. Meanwhile, no one was providing more grist for the innocence industry mill than accused police torturer Jon Burge. And James Sotos was being paid more than $8 million by the city of Chicago to defend Burge and fellow cops against misconduct suits.

When Randy Steidl filed a wrongful conviction suit in 2004 (Whitlock later joined it), Sotos defended the city of Paris and Ekl defended Edgar County. But that’s not to say they have no place in their hearts for the little guy falsely accused. It was Sotos back in the day who told Curry about Alstory Simon; they represented Simon in 2005 and represent him still.

And because they do, their crusade has been met by palpable cynicism, and Protess hasn’t had to stay up past his bedtime framing a rejoinder. Protess now writes regularly for the Huffington Post, and in posts Tuesday and last Friday he ridiculed the case for Simon. “Besides the overwhelming proof of Simon’s guilt—the videotaped confession, his guilty plea to a judge, a tearful courtroom apology for the slayings, damning admissions to a Milwaukee TV reporter—it was Simon’s failure to appeal that forever closed his case,” Protess wrote. He called Sotos and Ekl “shills for law enforcement whose likely purpose”—or so Protess originally thought—”was to undermine the innocence movement by gutting its symbol.”

But now he had another idea. What Protess called “two shadowy figures” are making a documentary about the Anthony Porter case, and he reasoned that there’s money to be made by championing the documentary’s good guy. One of these figures, the head of the production company making it, is Christopher Shawn Rech, who may be less shadowy than simply someone willing to live in Cleveland. The other, the executive producer, is Andrew Hale, whom Protess identified as one of a group of Chicago lawyers who between 2004 and 2012 were paid $20.5 million by Chicago to defend the city against policy brutality and unlawful conviction suits, many involving Jon Burge.

On his own behalf, Dan Curry has also cited the coming movie. In a recent post in which he complained that the Alstory Simon crusade is getting less coverage than it deserves, Curry added cryptically, “A coming documentary on the Porter case might change the equation soon.”

Curry himself thinks in cinematic terms. In 2007, a time when he says he wasn’t on Morgan’s payroll but was giving him advice anyway, he proposed that Rick Reed and his media firm, Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, be brought in to make a documentary. Rick Reed is best known for his 2004 “swift boat” ads attacking the war record of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president.

The idea didn’t get off the ground, but later Curry discussed it in a 2008 deposition.

“The idea was that you would make this—this movie that would show, according to you, the role David Protess and others played in framing Alstory Simon, is that right?” Curry was asked.

Yes, he said.

“And you would also deal with the Paris case and how Protess and Clutter and Callahan and others smeared Bob Morgan and obscured the truth in that case, is that right?”

William Clutter was a private detective working for Steidl’s attorney; Michale Callahan was an investigator for the Illinois State Police who reported that the original investigation of the Paris murders was a disgrace.

Yes, said Curry.

“And you would then, as part of this, you would raise about $200,000 to finance the documentary, is that right?”

Right, said Curry.

“Now you hoped to use Fox News as an outlet to promote—your movie on—that would attack Dave Protess and others, is that right?”

Yes, said Curry.

“And you particularly wanted to use some of the commentators’ shows like O’Reilly and Hannity and some of the conservative types that frequent Fox News as talking heads, is that right?”

“That was one element of the approach,” said Curry.

But it didn’t work out.

“You proposed this in a letter to Bob Morgan, is that correct?”

Yes, said Curry.

“OK. What was his response?”

“I didn’t get any response from him,” said Curry.

But he said the idea wasn’t dead.