Who is the Illinois Governor's Office Really Working For?
Do wrongful conviction activists, particularly those at Northwestern University, own the governor’s office?
It’s a crucial question in light of the recent last-minute freeing of inmates by outgoing Governor Pat Quinn. It’s also important because it’s not the first time an Illinois governor has set offenders free. In fact, there is a legacy of deeply suspicious pardons and commutations by the governors’ office going back all the way to 1999.
With such a leverage over the governor, wrongful conviction activists can bypass the entire criminal justice system. No matter how many legal proceedings determine an offender is guilty, activists can still free him.
Talk about juice.
Governor Pat Quinn provided the activists in the wrongful conviction movement with several huge prizes last week.
One was the secret release of Howard Morgan from prison. Howard was convicted of trying murder four police officers in 2005 during a traffic stop. Three of the officers were wounded in the course of Howard firing at them 17 times.
In releasing Morgan, Quinn contravened the entire criminal justice system that pointed to Morgan’s guilt: the vast evidence, the testimony, the trial, the conviction by his peers and the exhaustion of all his appeals. In short, the entire criminal justice system bolstered the narrative that Morgan tried to kill four police officers.
No one from Quinn’s office contacted any police officers who were wounded that night to hear their side or to alert these officers that the man who tried to murder them was getting out of prison. The officers merely turned on the news and watched Morgan walk free.
Morgan’s release comes after a long battle by his supporters, many of them players in the wrongful conviction movement, including former Northwestern Professor David Protess.
Another prize for the movement came when Quinn also commuted the sentence of Willie Johnson, a central witness in a wrongful conviction scam by Northwestern University's law school. Northwestern had brought Johnson forth as a supposed recantation witness in a double homicide. A judge and the prosecutor said Johnson’s recantation was a lie.
To the shock of Northwestern, the prosecutor charged Johnson with perjury and he pled guilty. Johnson went to prison.
In most other cities, authorities might have asked why it was that a major university was bringing forth a witness who was lying, a witness who was trying to free two convicted killers. They might also ask, how many other witnesses have they brought forth who were lying?
Instead, Quinn threw the university a bone and secretly commuted Johnson’s sentence.
Again, talk about juice.
It would be a mistake to think that Quinn’s actions are anything new in Illinois. His lawless commutations and pardons are not the first time a scandal-plagued, disgraced governor has sold out his office to the wrongful conviction movement.
In 1999, Governor Ryan was immersed in a scandal of his own, one that would eventually send him to prison. He was looking for a way to salvage his reputation and career after evidence revealed corruption in his office.
Northwestern University’s Innocence Project gave him just such an opportunity. Professor David Protess and Private Investigator Paul Ciolino from Northwestern’s Innocence Project claimed that Anthony Porter, a gang enforcer convicted of a brutal double homicide that took place in 1982, was innocent and another man, Alstory Simon, was guilty.
Riding a whirlwind of publicity, Ryan embraced the Protess claims and eventually pardoned Porter. Simon was convicted and sent to prison.
Fifteen years later, Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez released Simon from prison after an exhaustive review of the Protess case, saying Protess’ tactics in garnering a confession from Simon were unconstitutional. Alvarez’s review came after more than a decade of complaints by cops, retired cops, a journalist, lawyers, and several private investigators claiming there was no real evidence against Simon and that Porter was guilty.
Alvarez, who assailed the conduct of the Innocence Project in the case, would not go so far as to say that Simon was innocent and Porter was guilty, but a vast body of evidence indicates that that is the case.
One wonders, why weren’t the abuses against Simon apparent to Ryan when he reviewed the case and set Porter free? Why wasn’t the evidence that the David Protess-led investigation at Northwestern was a sham? Had Ryan and his staff even reviewed the case before they endorsed the Protess’ claims?
It was hardly different when Quinn set free Willie Johnson, the recantation witness obtained by Northwestern University who was convicted of perjury. The commutations and pardons of both governors show that they were willing to acquiesce to the demands of the wrongful conviction movement, regardless of the evidence. Both governors sold out their office.
The corruption goes even deeper. Anthony Porter was not the only killer released from prison under Ryan. Porter’s pardon opened up the wrongful conviction floodgates. Everyone and his brother in prison began claiming they were innocent. In this hysteria, the soon-to-be incarcerated Governor Ryan also pardoned four other men.
Just three days before his term was to end in 2003, Ryan set free Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange, and Aaron Patterson. What made these pardons so remarkable was that they were made solely by the whim of the governor, a governor whose motives were entirely suspect, just like the release of Morgan and Johnson by Quinn.
“Experts said it was the first time in memory that condemned men had been directly pardoned, as opposed to being released through a court proceeding, an extraordinary step Governor Ryan took because, he said, he is convinced of their innocence,” wrote the New York Times.
“Governor Ryan's action today is also different because Mr. Hobley and the others -- Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange and Aaron Patterson -- have been unable to convince judges or prosecutors that they were wrongly convicted.”
Why did Ryan think these men were innocent when the trials determined they were guilty? What did Ryan see that no juror, judge, or prosecutor ever saw? Or was Ryan simply lying? Was he going along with the Northwestern party line in exchange for their support?
Was the real reason Ryan released these convicted killers that Northwestern told him to, just as it appears Quinn released Morgan and Johnson because he was told to?
The release of Madison Hobley was particularly shocking. Hobley had been convicted of setting a fire that killed seven people, including his own wife and child, and seriously injuring seventeen others. For many detectives, it was the worst crime scene they had ever witnessed.
Every legal proceeding concluded Hobley was guilty. Judges openly ridiculed his attorney’s arguments that he was innocent.
The Cook County Prosecutor at the time Hobley was released, Dick Devine, lashed out at Ryan’s pardons, calling them “outrageous and unconscionable.”
“These cases against these men are still before our courts, and it is the courts that should decide the issues in these cases,'' Mr. Devine said. ''By his actions today the governor has breached faith with the memory of the dead victims, their families and the people he was elected to serve.''
Breached the faith…with the people he was elected to serve? Isn’t that exactly what Quinn did in freeing Morgan and Johnson?
One question hangs in the air. Why? Why did Quinn set Morgan and Johnson free? What did Quinn get in return?
Perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps the payoff will be something obvious, like a position at Northwestern for Quinn.
Professor Patrick Quinn?
Quinn could teach a class called Contemporary Ethics in State Government.
It would be fitting curriculum for any student in the Crooked City.