Crooked City

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The Alstory Simon Release: the Good, the Bad, and Eric Zorn

The Good

The release of Alstory Simon from 15 years in prison marks the end of a long struggle to not only free an innocent man, but to finally see what was truly going on in the crime syndicate disguised as the wrongful conviction movement.

Despite all the attempts by the movement's advocates and apologists, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez finally called the actions of Northwestern's Innocence Project under David Protess, along with with his private investigator, Paul Ciolino, criminal. 

It's about time.

That's exactly what Simon's attorneys, private investigators Jim Delordo and John Mizzola, former journalist Bill Crawford, Dan Curry and Attorney Andy Hale, among others, have been arguing for years.

Clearly Alvarez didn't want to return to the Porter case, to the fact that Anthony Porter was, after all, the killer of Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard in 1982. It was only the constant pressure and the evidence dug up by this group of people that compelled Alvarez to review it, a collection of evidence explained in the book Crooked City.  

One great benefit of Simon's release is that the case is no longer controlled by Alvarez's office. Now the Simon case moves into the world of the civil court where Simon and his lawyers will try to recoup a settlement for having Simon’s life stolen from him by one of the country's most prestigious universities.

The discovery process of this lawsuit is nothing short of revolutionary. All the major players will face depositions. Certainly no one is willing to lie for Protess anymore. No tenured professor, for example, is going to chuck their cozy world in the ivory towers to bail out Protess. These depositions can spell out how the university allowed one of their professors to corral naive students into violating the constitutional rights of Alstory Simon. 

 Another benefit of Alvarez's ruling is that it once again pushes forth an ominous question that no one from the media has been willing to ask in the wake of Alvarez saying Simon's rights were abused:

If Protess was engaged in criminal activity in the Simon case, for how many others was he doing the same?

Now, perhaps, the media and courts will be forced to ask it, since the discovery process in the Simon lawsuit will touch on other cases, and a foul tapestry will unfold.

The people who fought for Alvarez to review the Simon case have long held that what Protess did in the Simon case is not an exception. In fact, it's representative of how the entire movement operates, they argue: Lawyers and activists solicit false statements from witnesses, run into court and say the police tortured or coerced a confession with no evidence of such, and get shell-shocked and media-sensitive prosecutors/judges to let them out.

One reason they are able to get away with it is that they have enjoyed unwavering support among the local media. 

A sign that the movement regularly enlists shady witness recantations is illuminated in two recent wrongful conviction claims. The cases were shot down when judges ruled they did not believe recantation witnesses who were brought forward by wrongful conviction advocates were truthful. One of the witnesses, Willie Johnson, was charged with perjury and pled guilty in a case involving Northwestern.

There is another positive in Simon's release. The media that has been covering up their involvement in these wrongful conviction scam—whether they knew it or not—will likely be fronted out in the discovery  process of the plodding civil cases. 

How often, for example, were Eric Zorn and Steven Mills of the Chicago Tribune calling David Protess at Northwestern? How many emails were sent? Were they sharing information? Were the reporters and writers providing guidance to the student sleuths?

There are a multitude of other questions that may arise as a result of investigations in civil cases, such as: 

What was the relationship between David Protess' Innocence Project and Northwestern's Law School, as the departments worked together on many cases?

Why didn't the law school observe the violation of constitutional rights that the state's attorney did? How could a school that boasts of its ability to prepare lawyers not see such elemental abuses taking place in its own back yard? 

Did any faculty members or students come forward and voice suspicion or accusations against Protess and his methods? If so, what did they say? How was Protess able to get the students involved in such activities? What was Protess’ relationship to the students? 

What exactly was contained in the internal investigation by Northwestern that led to Protess' firing in 2011, when the school admitted he lied to them and the courts? Did the school have knowledge of illegal conduct by Protess? And, if so, what did they do about it? 

How willing were Protess and Ciolino to make false claims against Chicago Police Detectives? How often? 

Why didn't other wrongful conviction law firms who worked with Protess observe the constitutional violations that the state's attorney observed? 

How could it be that all these law firms and activists did not see that Alstory Simon's rights were violated? Didn't these groups pride themselves on their ability to discover wrongful convictions/violations of people's rights?

Are there instances when these other law firms also violated constitutional rights or other laws in their attempt to bring forward supposed wrongful conviction cases? 

Why has there been no outrage by these other organizations against the tactics employed by Protess and Ciolino? Do they not find such actions repugnant? 

The Bad

Alvarez's announcement ignored the evidence of corruption against her predecessor, Dick Devine, corruption that directly led to Simon's wrongful conviction. 

A time bomb affidavit in 2013 from another former prosecutor and chief of the criminal division, Thomas Epach, stated that he told Devine in 1999--the year Anthony Porter was released and Alstory Simon convicted--he thought Porter was guilty and should not have been released. To prove his point, Epach boldly called a grand jury and collected even more evidence that Porter was guilty. Despite this evidence, Devine and another prosecutor at the time, Thomas Gainer, went ahead and accepted Simon's confession, an egregious violation of the law and ethics.

The affidavit by Epach was clear evidence that corruption in the State's Attorney's Office played a crucial role in the wrongful conviction of Alstory Simon. 

But there is a larger truth here than just the Porter case. 

Prosecutors expect the police to go into the worst situations and apply the law. When they don't, the prosecutor has shown she will indict them without hesitation. When State's Attorney Dick Devine and Thomas Gainer allowed Alstory Simon to plead guilty to the homicides, even though both men knew there was so much evidence of his innocence, the trust between prosecutors and the police was broken.

It has never recovered.

With the exception of Thomas Epach, prosecutors in 1999 betrayed the detectives--and therefore the entire police department--in the Porter case. These detectives built a solid case against Porter and got him arrested before he could harm anyone else. Because of the prosecutors' decision to release Porter when they had so much evidence of his guilt, the prosecutors gave life to a civil lawsuit against the detectives. Detectives faced years of ridiculous, fraudulent accusations in the media of framing Porter and then even torturing him.

And after Porter was exonerated, wrongful conviction activists flooded the criminal justice system with similar claims, imposing untold pressure on even more detectives who were merely doing their jobs. 

It's clear from the Porter exoneration—and now Alvarez's flimsy, false claim that her predecessors did nothing wrong—that the Chicago police are considered by many power brokers in the city to be little more than political pawns. One wonders. How many other wrongful conviction cases are frauds? How many other detectives have been thrown under the bus? How many have spent their retirements wondering if they will be sued because the state's attorney did not stop the cases when it could? 

The Ugly (Eric Zorn)

What is perhaps the ugliest aspect of Simon's release is the attempts by the local media to cover up their corruption, particularly Eric Zorn from the Chicago Tribune. 

Most journalists would be distraught to realize their conduct and their writing supported a group of people that were running around violating people's constitutional rights. The fact that it took place in a case in which they were attempting to free a killer from prison and incarcerate an innocent man makes it all the worse.

Even if someone were to deny the clear evidence that Porter was guilty, any journalist would still be distraught by the mere fact that they supported people engaged in criminal activity the way Protess and Ciolino were.  

Not Zorn and the Chicago media machine. 

Zorn only admits in a column in the wake of Simon's release that he lacked the requisite "skepticism" in the case. To prove this, Zorn harkens back to a 2006 column he wrote calling for a new hearing for Alstory Simon. After this "get out of jail" column was written, Zorn went back to vilifying the growing chorus in the city trying to show him and the rest of the media community that Simon was a victim of a grand conspiracy. 

But this one column won't excuse Zorn. To see the true depravity in the local media on this case, one only needs to go back a year earlier to another Zorn column, in 2005.

In that year, the detectives in the Porter case had just endured six years of accusations that they framed witnesses in the Porter investigation and then that they had tortured Porter. An indication of the bias and indolence of the local media is revealed in the fact that no local journalist ever bothered to observe that the detectives did not meet Porter in the course of their investigation. They only got a warrant for his arrest based upon witness statements. If they had, one of the journalists might have asked: How do you torture someone you never met?  

In any case, the detectives had desperately fought for the Porter case to go to civil trial after Porter's attorneys sued the detectives for millions. The detectives knew Porter was guilty and they wanted another opportunity to prove it and to clear their reputations from the onslaught of negative press from the local media machine. They got a lawyer, Walter Jones, who originally was going to settle. After the detectives explained their investigation, Jones also saw Porter was guilty. Jones refused to settle and went into court and argued that Porter was guilty, despite the fact that he had been exonerated. The detectives won and Porter didn't get a dime. 

A befuddled journalist asked Jones after the verdict why Porter didn't get any money. Jones pointed to Porter and said because "The killer has been sitting in that room right there all day.”

Furious that anyone would contradict the story Northwestern had built up that Porter was innocent, Zorn lashed out at Jones for merely opining what Jones had just proven in court: that Porter was guilty. 

Now even the State's Attorney admits the means by which Northwestern got Porter freed were illegal and coercive. For some reason, this escaped Eric Zorn and the rest of the Chicago media community. Instead, Zorn viciously attacked Jones in a column the day after the verdict in the civil trial. 

Zorn goes so far to demand an apology from Jones.

He wants Jones to apologize for calling Porter a killer, even though he had just proven Porter was the killer in court. Then Zorn goes a step further, asking Porter's attorneys about suing Jones for defamation. It's hard to wrap one's mind around this. Is Zorn claiming that anyone who disagrees with Protess and Northwestern can face a defamation lawsuit? 

So much for Zorn lacking the right “skepticism.” He lacked the right ethics, the right character and the right open-mindedness. He sold out his position to politically support Northwestern and the wrongful conviction movement, even when their claims were proven false in court.

That Zorn was never reprimanded for this column is truly amazing. He should have been fired. This column was in 2005. Simon was released in 2014. If Zorn had looked at the evidence back then, rather than condemn it without consideration, then maybe Simon would not have spent another nine years in prison. 

It would be a tough thing for any journalist to live with, the fact that he could have obtained the release of an innocent man, a man whose constitutional rights had been violated in an attempt to get him to plead guilty to a double murder, were it not for his own overwhelming bias and self indulgence. It would be tough, that is, if that journalist had a conscience.