Crooked City

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Media Complicit in Porter Case


No murder case points to the dangers of the too-cozy relationship between Chicago journalists and wrongful conviction advocates than that of Anthony Porter.

Porter, once sentenced to death for a double homicide in 1982, was miraculously freed from this crime through the efforts of Professor David Protess, Private Investigator Paul Ciolino and a collection of students at Northwestern’s Innocence Project in 1999. The Northwestern investigators fingered another man, Alstory Simon, for the killings and obtained a bizarre confession from him under the most extraordinary and suspicious circumstances.

Now the case is imploding as a top prosecutor has blasted the decisions to free Porter and convict Simon. A disturbing picture of malfeasance and allegations of criminal activity is emerging at the Innocence Project under David Protess, who left the school in 2011 in the wake of scandal. When the dust settled on that scandal, the school admitted Protess had lied about investigations on other cases.

The fact is that Alstory Simon likely would never have been wrongfully convicted were it not for a collection of journalists who abandoned their ethics in support of Protess. Chief among these journalists are Steve Mills and Eric Zorn from the Tribune. Had they asked the basic questions in the Porter case, a murderer wouldn’t be walking the streets right now a free man and an innocent man wouldn’t be wasting away in prison.

One incident in the case stands out among all others.

Detectives Dennis Gray and Charles Salvatore were shocked when Porter was released from prison in 1999. They were certain they had the right guy. Upon his release, Salvatore went back to all the transcripts in the case and went through it step by step. As he did so, the allegations that Salvatore and his partner had framed Porter for the murders took shape. This frame-up theory became the narrative that freed Porter. The detectives were assailed in the media.

There was a five-year period between the time the detectives were accused framing Porter and the civil trial in which Porter’s attorneys hoped to make millions. The city contracted the detectives’ case out to attorney Walter Jones, whose father had been a Chicago Police Officer. Jones originally assumed Porter was innocent, but he was struck by the passion with which Salvatore and Gray defended their investigation and their conclusion that Porter was guilty. The detectives insisted Jones return to the scene of the crime and go over the evidence. In a short period, the detectives convinced Jones that not only were they innocent of any wrongdoing, but that Porter was the killer.

Along the way, Jones discovered even more witnesses who named Porter. He also observed that retired detectives from all over the country returned to Chicago to help the detectives in the case, for it was running joke among Chicago Police Officers familiar with the case that Porter was freed.

Realizing Porter was indeed guilty, Jones called up Porter’s shocked attorneys and rejected a settlement. He told them it was going to trial.

Amazingly, after Porter’s attorneys learned Jones would not settle, the nature of the allegations against the detectives changed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, they were also accused of torturing Porter. Porter said they tried to torture him into confessing, but he wouldn’t give in. This was the first time Porter alleged torture in 16 years. There was no evidence, no witnesses, no mention of it in his appeals.  

What makes the torture allegations so incredible, aside from their suspicious timing, was the fact that neither Zorn nor Mills studied the timeline of these events, a timeline that shows clearly they could not have tortured anyone. For some reason, the clear impossibility of the detectives torturing Porter eluded Zorn, who nevertheless churned out column after column in praise of Protess and the Northwester investigators.

Nevertheless, the allegations were a prime example of what cops had been claiming for decades, that inmates were making torture claims fraudulently to make money in lawsuits and get out of prison.  

In the civil trial, Jones went into court for the detectives and argued what he privately had come to believe: Porter was the killer. He won and the detectives were vindicated.

One would think that a journalist interested in getting at the truth of a case would have found this trial compelling. He would have found the great body of evidence that Jones presented showing clearly that Porter was the killer worth investigating.

But not Zorn.

At the end of the trial, a dumbfounded journalist walked to Walter Jones and asked how it was that Porter could get no money for his years in prison. Jones answered honestly. He pointed at Porter and said “Because the killer has been sitting there all along.”

In one of the worst examples of a journalist abandoning the principles and ethics of his trade, Zorn lashed out at Jones for asserting what Jones just successful argued in court. It wasn’t just that Zorn stated he disagreed with Jones. He assailed him. He said the city owed Anthony Porter an apology. An apology for a gang enforcer, a man convicted of a double homicide? He even suggested to Porter’s attorneys that they should sue Jones for defamation. Defamation of what, one wonders, the fraudulent argument Zorn had been posing over the Porter case for 16 years?

Zorn now advocates that a special prosecutor should take up the Porter case. That's about 13 years overdue. But Zorn's behavior in the civil trial over the Porter case bely his real intentions in this case and his extraordinary bias. 

If there were an Office or Professional Standards, an Internal Affairs Department for journalists, or a collection of law firms in Chicago making an industry out of suing them, Zorn may perhaps face some justice for his conduct in the Porter case. He may be forced to resign.

This is, after all, a double homicide case and a wrongful conviction.