By Michael Miner

Ford Heights: Protess Protests

Two weeks ago I devoted my column to the rancorous residue of the Ford Heights story–four men going free after a total of 65 years in prison for murders they did not commit. The rancor was roughly triangular: Medill professor David Protess irritated with three former students who helped investigate the case, gained celebrity that attracted Hollywood, and then refused to sign a movie deal Protess says would have rescued the four freed men from destitution; the three young women distrustful of Protess; and private investigator Rene Brown envious of the students’ celebrity, which he felt was unearned, and angry at Protess for allegedly encouraging an atmosphere of celebrity that obscured Brown’s own hard work.

Last week I heard from Protess. His seven-page letter began by describing my column as “filled with errors” and “incredibly mean-spirited.” He faulted me for not interviewing several sources who would have told a different story and concluded by urging me to “confess” to my failings.

In preparing my response I took one of his complaints to heart and conducted several more interviews. Some of this new testimony supported Protess’s position. Most of it did not.

Protess wrote: “You portray Rene Brown as the hapless victim of a media machine, as a man who didn’t get credit where credit was due. Even a casual perusal of clips and T.V. coverage shows otherwise.

“The front-page, New York Times story of June 15 cites ‘three young women, senior journalism majors at Northwestern University, who along with their professor, David Protess, and a black private investigator, Rene Brown, spent the last six months going through mountains of files and tracking down witnesses in crack houses and prisons. Mr. Brown had been working on the case off and on since 1980.’

“And here’s [the Tribune’s] Eric Zorn the next day…. ‘Some of that work and inspiration leaned on the discoveries of South Side private investigator Rene Brown….It was Brown…who first got on the trail of the four other men who have now been implicated or have confessed to a role in the crime; it was Brown who had the only interviews with new prime suspect Dennis Johnson before Johnson died, and it was Brown who…provided key entrees for Protess and his students into the predominantly black, underclass community of Ford Heights.'”

Protess continued in this vein, citing a July 4 Tribune article giving Brown credit for implicating Dennis Johnson, a June 23 Sun-Times article describing Brown as a valuable guide in Ford Heights, a July 21 Sun-Times feature story devoted to Brown, and three Channel Five stories and a Dateline segment that acknowledged Brown.

“So Rene Brown has had more than his fifteen minutes of fame,” wrote Protess. “Nonetheless, your column swallows his ludicrous claim that I somehow prevented him from getting even more attention at the June 12 [actually June 14] press conference. If you’d interviewed any of the journalists in attendance they could have told you that the free-wheeling session included statements not just by my students and me (crediting everyone in sight) but also by six lawyers (at two different times) and repeated waves of family members of the four men. Yet you write that ‘Brown was never invited forward.’ If you’ve ever covered such a press conference, you know that there isn’t a Greek chorus of reporters who’d chant, ‘Rene! Rene!’ Only Brown stopped Brown from speaking.

“Brown’s claim that I slighted him at the press conference could have been easily challenged. For example, his description of how my students and I approached the cameras is disproven by the television news footage of the session, which you apparently didn’t bother to review. And his version of the briefcase incident could have been proven false by interviewing several people who saw me hand it to my wife, or by interviewing the four men, who say that Brown has been whining incessantly about numerous perceived slights but never mentioned that one. [Brown had told me that as Protess approached the microphones set up outside the courtroom where three of the Ford Heights prisoners had just been released on home monitors, Protess handed him his briefcase.]

“In sum, your column has fostered a counter-myth–‘black investigator scorned’–to the equally simplistic notion that my students and I were responsible for freeing four innocent men.

“Now to the more complicated question of whether Brown deserved the ample credit that he received…”

Let me interrupt Protess’s letter here to comment. My column had cited a June 11 Eric Zorn column that began “Credit the kids,” the headline to the June 15 New York Times article–“3 Innocent of Killing Go Free, Thanks to Students and DNA”–and comments by Protess on Dateline, on Chicago Tonight, and in People, in which he said essentially the same thing (“To me it’s frightening that a college professor and three of his students could have solved this crime when it was there to be solved all the time,” to quote him in People). All of these, I wrote, had romanticized the role played by the students in correcting the Ford Heights injustice.

Once this notion took wing it soared. The Associated Press in Newsday, June 17: “It started as a class project for three college journalism students: Take another look at a real-life crime and see whether the right people were punished.” Michelle Stevens, Sun-Times, June 17: “The public is properly marveling at the remarkable dedication of the journalism students and their professor at Northwestern University.” Daily Southtown, June 20: “Prosecutors have been reviewing statements collected by a journalism teacher and his students.” The AP in the New York Times, July 4: “One day after new DNA evidence and digging by college students prompted a judge to drop all remaining charges…” Sun-Times editorial, July 5: “The men’s release was obtained in large part through the investigative work of a Northwestern University journalism professor and three of his students.” Clarence Page, Tribune, July 10: “It is the stuff of which movies are made. A crusading journalism professor assigns his students to take six months and tackle a 28-year-old double-abduction and murder case.”

Brown called the mentions made of his role in the investigation “tidbits buried under headlines that really glorified the students.” I consider that a fair description. The “more complicated question,” as Protess put it, is whether the reporting he took pains to cite was accurate. Protess’s position is that it was not.

Protess’s letter informed me that Brown was hired in 1980 by the families of Dennis Williams and William Rainge, two of the former prisoners, and was fired a year later. In 1982 he was hired by Rob Warden, then owner and editor of Chicago Lawyer, to help research an article Warden was preparing on the case. “For reasons that Warden could have told you, he also dumped Brown.”

Protess continued, “Brown was not called as a witness at the 1984 trial of Verneal Jimerson or the 1987 retrials of Williams and Rainge. Defense attorneys could have told you why they unanimously decided not to have him take the stand. Regardless of the reasons, Rene Brown’s investigation had produced absolutely nothing of legal significance by 1987.

“In February, 1996 I tracked down Brown with private investigator Paul Ciolino and NBC-5’s Doug Longhini to get his comments on the street files that we’d re-discovered….Against the advice of Longhini and Ciolino (for reasons they could have explained to you), I asked Brown to work for me and the students. He didn’t say, ‘Sure, no problem,’ as you reported. Instead, he wanted to know exactly how much I could pay him. Your story doesn’t disclose that I hired him as an adjunct professor at Medill and paid him $2,000, facts which I told you.

“As it turned out, he made only two trips to Ford Heights with my students, despite what your column suggests. Did you ask [Laura] Sullivan about this? She also could have told you that there wouldn’t even have been a second trip if I hadn’t insisted; the students didn’t want to return with him for reasons Sullivan could have explained.

“Brown also claims credit for Marvin Simpson, Red Robinson and ‘for generally unraveling the ancient crime,’ you report. Had you taken the trouble to read the 1996 legal pleadings in the case, you would not have allowed these claims to go unchallenged. Brown’s name is not on any of the affidavits about the newly developed evidence in the case, consistent with his non-performance as a witness in the earlier period. And he was not called to testify before the grand jury that recently indicted the suspects he claimed to have known about all along. (I spent more than two hours testifying; my former students, like Brown, did not appear.)

“Finally, basic journalistic rules of fairness should have prompted you to allow me to respond to Brown’s allegations about our purported highway discussions of a movie project. I would have denied that any such conversations occurred when he said they did, and given you names of sources who were present when (a.) Brown repeatedly brought up a possible movie deal and, ever-concerned with fame, expressed the grandiose wish that Denzel Washington would play him; and (b.) I consistently responded by predicting that no feature film would be made about this case because, based on my recent experience with the lack of big-screen interest in the Dowaliby case, I expected that Hollywood would never care about the story of four African-Americans from East Chicago Heights.”

The facts of Brown’s involvement in the Ford Heights case in the early 80s strike me as largely irrelevant to his role in 1996. Dennis Williams and Rob Warden do agree with Protess that Brown didn’t work out the first time around. And Ciolino emphatically acknowledged advising Protess not to give Brown another chance at the case. “I said, ‘Hey, you’re probably making a big mistake with him.'” Why? “He doesn’t have a license to practice. If you asked this guy to come in and testify, a state’s attorney would blow this guy up in 30 seconds.” But Longhini doesn’t recall giving Protess the same advice. “I don’t remember that subject coming up,” Longhini said.

What matters is that Protess took Brown on. Brown himself had told me about the adjunct-professor status and $2,000 fee. I didn’t mention these details because I didn’t consider them as significant as Protess does. “Two grand!” says Brown. “My phone bill was that much. This was never about money. It was about the truth.”

At issue here is the job Brown did for Protess. In retrospect, I asked Ciolino, did Brown contribute anything? “The contribution was he took these white girls down in the black community and made sure they didn’t get hurt,” Ciolino said. “He was like a bodyguard for them. In that respect he did really good work.”

Others describe a larger role. After reading my column of two weeks ago, retired police lieutenant George Nance of the Ford Heights police department called to tell me it was he who interviewed informant Marvin Simpson back in 1978. He then wrote the street file that gathered dust until this year, when it helped to clear the names of the Ford Heights Four. “If it hadn’t been for my report those boys would have went to the chair,” Nance said. “I’m the true hero.”

I asked Nance to assess Brown’s role in the investigation. “What he did do was he made it easier for David Protess and those students to get to those people [the informants and suspects named in the street file],” Nance said. “They couldn’t have got to none of them. Rene Brown played a good role by his being black and getting into those black areas where they don’t let white people in.”

I also spoke with James Thompson, a Jenner & Block attorney who represented Dennis Williams on the legal team Protess assembled. Williams considers Brown a self-aggrandizer who “played a very slight role in this.” But Thompson said, “I took four affidavits in this case, which I submitted to the supreme court. I couldn’t have gotten any of those affidavits without Rene. Rene developed a great relationship with Marvin Simpson and David Campbell [Simpson’s companion the night of the murders]. I went with Rene one morning to see David Campbell. On the way there Rene and I talked about what would make this case the best. I said, really joking, ‘We need Red Robinson to confess.’ [Simpson had named Robinson in the street file as one of the killers.] Rene said, ‘Well, we’re working on that.’

After taking Campbell’s statement, Thompson returned to Chicago. Brown stayed in Ford Heights to meet Robinson and wait for the students, who were coming down later. “That afternoon was when Red Robinson confessed,” Thompson told me. “So was Rene instrumental in getting Red Robinson to confess? Of course he was. And if Protess says he wasn’t, he’s wrong.”

Protess claims that Brown “made only two trips to Ford Heights with my students.” At his suggestion, I asked Laura Sullivan if this was accurate. “There were definitely more than two trips,” she replied. “Maybe he doesn’t remember them because he wasn’t there. There was a time I went down alone with Rene. There was a time Stephanie [Goldstein] went down alone with Rene. There was a time when Stacey [Delo] and Stephanie went down, and two times Stephanie and I went down–one time with him, and one time when we met up with him.” Brown also recalls being with them five times in Ford Heights.

Protess’s description of the press conference at which Brown felt slighted as a “free-wheeling session” in which the mike belonged to whoever grabbed it doesn’t jibe with the way he originally described it to me. Then he’d said, “I’m sorry the TV people chose not to invite Rene up. I would have chosen to invite Rene up, and I clearly invited them to do that in my statement.” So is it fair to blame Brown for not holding court before reporters who didn’t want to hear from him?

As for the briefcase incident, Brown may not have mentioned it to others, but he first mentioned it to me months ago. After receiving Protess’s letter I asked Brown about it again. He said Protess handed him the briefcase and at his mother’s insistence he put it on the floor. Protess later retrieved it. Perhaps Protess then gave the briefcase to his wife. Brown is alleging the sort of small, emblematic slight that might be as hard for one party to remember as it is for the other to forget. When I originally asked Protess about the matter he replied, “That’s completely insane. It’s very sad he would think that.”

I should have allowed Protess to respond to Brown’s allegation that it was Protess who raised the idea of Denzel Washington playing Brown in the movies. Brown insists it was. “He told everybody he met–Marvin Simpson, Red Robinson, George Nance–that Denzel Washington was going to play their parts,” says Brown. “He also told Dennis Williams.”

I was able to reach Simpson, Nance, and Williams and ask if they’d ever discussed a movie project with Protess. Simpson had no recollection of doing so. Nance said there had been such a conversation, and he called his wife to the phone.

Louise Nance recalled that the subject of a movie was raised when she and her husband met Protess for dinner. “At first he said George will be played by Denzel Washington…. He said, ‘Keep it under your hat, but he’ll probably play you.'” She went on to say that Protess eventually conceded it was more likely that Washington would get the role of Dennis Williams.

Williams told me that he and Protess lightheartedly discussed which actor would land his part. Williams believed Wesley Snipes was more his physical type. “Dave thought that Denzel Washington would be a versatile enough actor to play my role.”

After dealing with Brown, Protess’s letter turned to his three former students. He said they “definitely piqued Hollywood’s interest and then tried to enrich themselves at the expense of four men who had no other source of income. You didn’t ask me for ‘evidence of (their) avarice’ or their ‘unbridled greed,’ as you report. If you had, I would have referred you to Robert Byman, who would have told you that the students were initially requesting 50 percent of the life rights money. That audacious request was made to Byman by Stephanie Goldstein, who was working for Jenner & Block at a summer job I’d gotten her. Because Byman represented Dennis Williams, he promptly told Stephanie that her continued employment represented a conflict-of-interest with his client, and she soon left the firm.

“Rather than asking me for evidence of avarice, you asked me for proof that my students had considered ‘competitive’ projects that might well have left the four men with nothing, which is why I faxed you the Summer Northwestern containing Sullivan’s admissions. That’s also why I faxed you the National Enquirer story which, you failed to mention, involved their full cooperation (even posing for a picture, to the embarrassment of the school) as well as the Glamour piece.”

But Byman says that Protess’s account has only “traces of accuracy to it. First of all, she never said to me the students were looking for 50 percent. She only said she’d been told by others [Byman wasn’t certain by whom] that the girls were entitled to equal shares.” What exactly Goldstein meant by equal shares was “never quantified,” Byman told me, and “Stephanie certainly never said she was insisting on it. I said if she took the position she wanted x dollars and I felt that was more than she was entitled to there’d be a conflict. But she never took that position.”

Goldstein’s summer internship originally would have involved helping Byman and Protess work on Dennis Williams’s case. “We thought it would be an ongoing case,” Byman said, “but the job evaporated.” (On July 2 charges against Williams were dropped.) Byman said he and Protess had another case that could have kept Goldstein “fully occupied,” but instead she “voluntarily withdrew” from the internship. (Given the students’ deteriorating relationship with Protess, perhaps she withdrew to avoid him.)

My notes of our conversation don’t tell me exactly what I said to Protess to prompt him to fax me the Summer Northwestern and National Enquirer articles. But here are Sullivan’s “admissions” to the Summer Northwestern: “We could have retired to an island in Barbados, but it was more important to help these guys. Because we wanted to stick with the four guys to help them out, we decided to take very little.” Not only does this statement in no way discredit the students, it does not even demonstrate they “considered” the lucrative offers that came their way. As for the National Enquirer, it says nothing whatsoever about possible movies save this: “What’s more, Hollywood is negotiating with the four men and the students over a deal to make a movie about the incredible case.”

Protess’s letter resumes: “Their self-promotional activities continued on the Oprah show, where Goldstein proclaimed, ‘We gathered this evidence….’ You strangely omitted that portion of her quote from your column–though I brought it to your attention–and instead left in other quotes which you characterized as evidence of ‘modesty.’ And you ignored altogether Sullivan’s taking credit on the show for ‘discovering’ the street file and claiming that they had canvassed poverty stricken neighborhoods–both false claims.”

I quoted Goldstein as saying on Oprah, “We really don’t see ourselves as heroines….I, I think the thing that sticks out for me–and I’m hoping to go on to law school–is really seeing a bunch of attorneys volunteering their time. Paralegals, attorneys, law firms coming together to help these men.” I stopped quoting there, but Goldstein continued: “I think that was the statement for me, that you need attorneys who really care about people to get involved–because we gathered this evidence, but without attorneys to bring it to the courts nothing would have happened.” I leave it to the reader to decide whether this added language exposes Goldstein’s immodesty.

The word “discovering,” which Protess puts in quotes and attributes to Sullivan, is a word she did not use, according to the Oprah transcript. She said this: “It all started…in this dusty warehouse…where we just sprawled out on the floor and dug through paper after paper, and we ended up finding something called a street file.” Sullivan stands by the statement: “We found it, brought it back, and our professor recognized it.” Goldstein said as much on Oprah: “The real significance of this file is it had been included in court documents before, but no one had ever really followed up on it. And with our professor, who recognized the street file, we started to follow up on the information.” Hardly egoism run rampant. As for Sullivan’s recollection of “hanging out on the south side of Chicago, getting to know people, knocking–just knocking on people’s doors,” perhaps some poetic license was exercised. But she quickly remembered three people, two of them crucial to the investigation, whose doors she knocked on.

Protess went on: “Most recently, they fired their Chicago lawyers, which you didn’t report, and replaced them with a top Hollywood talent agency, the William Morris Co., an ambitious move that you inexplicably described as a sign of possible ‘progress.’ For whom? Is it any wonder that, when the students told me they were considering deals that would have deprived the four men of everything but were ‘worried about (their) image,’ I indeed responded: ‘If you’re worried about your image, then how is it going to look if there’s a cynical twist in the book because at the end of the day, instead of helping the guys, you go out and screw them.'”

What I said about the young women’s representation was this: “The former students are now represented in negotiations with Disney by the William Morris agency’s Aaron Kaplan, someone who knows his way around a movie contract. Presumably that’s progress.” What’s inexplicable about finding it hopeful that a pro is now giving them advice? As it turned out, Kaplan’s contribution may have been decisive. I reported last week that Kaplan decided the young women had gone too far in prior negotiations with Disney to turn back, and he dropped them as clients. Laura Sullivan’s father, Ed Sullivan, a San Francisco lawyer now representing the young women, told me the other day that money was not an issue, guarantees that the former students would be positively portrayed were no longer an issue, and the only thing standing in the way of the students’ signatures on a Disney contract was the lack of language giving them back their “life rights” at some future point. “So I think we’re close,” he said.

Protess in his letter insisted that the students, “like Rene Brown,” are “mostly concerned about credit, and money.” He objected to my stating that “associates and students” say he can be “infuriating.” He wrote, “I pride myself on being nurturing and supportive of the people I work with, and have devoted my career to fighting injustice by assembling disparate groups–in this case, lawyers, investigators, journalists, journalism students, community residents and family members of the wrongly incarcerated. That’s not a ‘power move,’ as you quote Rene Brown as saying. That reflects my deeply held belief in collaborative work for progressive ends.”

But Brown was paying Protess a compliment, as I think my column made clear. “David brought people together,” said Brown. “It was a power move that worked.” In less highfalutin language, Brown simply said about Protess what Protess says about himself.

Offended that I ended my column by mentioning an award the ACLU decided not to give Protess and his students because of the bad blood between them, Protess devoted 20 climactic lines of his letter to awards and citations that he has received. My failure to mention them, he wrote, “typifies a column that sadly is dominated by venom and cynicism. The underlying reasons for this, Mike, are your business. But when you don’t take the time or trouble to fully report the facts, that reflects on your professional judgment and becomes the readers’ business.

“Perhaps the most tragic mistake in the Ford Heights case is the authorities’ repeated refusal to admit it. Don’t make the same error, Mike. Confess!”

Though Protess’s letter belittles Rene Brown’s contribution to the Ford Heights investigation, earlier he’d praised him. When I told Protess during an interview before my original column that Brown was upset, he replied, “He should be upset that he’s overshadowed by me. What I try to explain to people like Rene…is that journalists’ judgments about what’s newsworthy don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the situation.” The Sun-Times profile of Brown that Protess cited in his letter had Protess stating, “Rene played a crucial role.”

Brown told me that after the four men were released he told Protess he was unhappy but hoped they could put their differences behind them. But Brown continued to stew, and when he went public in my column with his complaints Protess might have felt betrayed.

Deriding his former students publicly and privately as selfish ingrates is a strange way to persuade them to sign a business contract. What we may have here is a Pygmalion confounded by three ungrateful Galateas. They were nobodies he plucked out of his class–and they became famous. He arranged a movie deal he expected them to sign at his nod–and they said, not so fast. What has alienated them from Protess, I believe, is less their greed than his overweening certitude.

But it is this same arrogance that permits him to go on butting his head against the criminal justice system. It’s essential to his success, a success I esteem wholeheartedly and envy. But when he likens the tragedy of Ford Heights–four men locked up for years while evidence of their innocence is ignored–to the mistakes he perceives I made in my original column, I must insist that the comparison is preposterous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Protess, rear right, with Verneal Jimerson, Dennis Williams, William Rainge, and Keneth Adams/ no photo credit.