Crooked City

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Failure to Represent?

Retired Chicago Detective Charles Salvatore was riding high in 2005. He had done something no other Chicago detective had ever pulled off. He had completely destroyed a wrongful conviction claim against his partner and himself in civil court. 

It was one of the biggest legal victories in the history of the department, and it had been a long, long road for the south side sergeant who had started his career in 1968. Initially, the City of Chicago was going to settle the case against him and write a check for millions of dollars to Anthony Porter, a gang thug who had been released from prison through the efforts of David Protess at the Innocence Project of Northwestern University. 

Porter had been convicted in 1983 of murdering a couple in Washington Park in the course of a robbery. But then Protess and his Northwestern investigators got involved, suddenly announcing Porter was innocent. In order to free Porter, Protess, his private investigator Paul Ciolino, and the Northwestern students had coerced another man, Alstory Simon, to confess to the murders. Simon was sentenced to 37 years in prison. 

Porter’s exoneration from prison had made international news and placed Protess and Northwestern in the media spotlight. The image of Porter running out of prison—out of death row—into the embracing arms of David Protess was played over and over again in the media all over the world. The entire population of the Illinois prison system watched and told themselves if Porter could get out, so could they. Many of them would. 

But the real impact of the Anthony Porter exoneration would reveal itself in the years after he was exonerated in 1999. 

Former Governor George Ryan would claim that watching Porter’s exoneration on television changed his thinking about the criminal justice system, and, in particular, the death penalty. To most police officers, such a claim was an eye roller. At the time of his announcement, Ryan was already setting new lows in political corruption, and the sudden crusade he undertook in the wake of the Porter exoneration smacked of deflection and political maneuvering away from a vast criminal investigation into his own administration. A strange, perverse friendship emerged between the Republican Ryan and the radical leftist wrongful conviction zealots, particularly those at Northwestern. 

In response to the Porter case, Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty. But that’s not all he did. Ryan held counsel with other wrongful conviction activists and academics, who somehow convinced him to issue a pardon to four other convicted killers, Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson, Leroy Orange, and Stanley Howard. 

What made these exonerations so incredible was the fact that no court had ever ruled that these men were innocent. In fact, each legal proceeding reinforced their convictions. But Ryan, enjoying a cozy relationship with the activists and lawyers, was now pardoning them. These cases also resulted in large settlements. 

The magnitude of what Ryan did in the wake of the Porter case—his freeing so many convicted killers with no legal justification—is hard to overestimate. What Ryan and the activists had done was completely circumvent the entire legal process. They had effectively undermined one of western civilization’s most sacred tenants: trial by peers, with specific processes of admitting and reviewing evidence by those peers, along with the binding authority of courts based upon this process. 

In its place, they had imposed an appalling syndicate of crooked politicians and radical activists working together to free killers and fleece taxpayers. In a larger context, they conspired to undermine the criminal justice system. Prosecutors and cops spent years convicting these killers, and it was all washed away with some secret meetings with a governor, a governor who would himself soon be sent to prison. Even for Illinois, this was an unprecedented level of corruption. 

One reason Ryan was able to get away with these pardons was the failure of the union that represents Chicago Police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), to speak out against it. Ryan’s pardoning of these men, along with his pardoning of Anthony Porter, was an a perfect opportunity for the union to address corruption in the wrongful conviction movement. But the union chose to do nothing, even though these pardons clearly foreboded even more fraudulent claims against the police. 

Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine called Ryan’s actions “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. 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,’’ Devine said. 

Civil lawsuits inevitably follow the exoneration of a convicted killer. These lawsuits make wild claims about the police and prosecutors, saying their client was framed, often beaten, into confessing.  Porter’s case was no different. Soon after he was set free, lawyers filed a multi-million dollar claim against the city. Eventually Porter claimed Salvatore and his partner had tortured him. 

Salvatore knew what was at stake in the case. If Porter’s lawyers got a settlement against him on Porter’s ludicrous allegations, likely other offenders in the prison system would make similar fraudulent complaints against him, and they too could be released and make millions.  Every detective knows that is how the wrongful conviction syndicate works. Once the lawyers get a settlement in one case, suddenly all kinds of inmates begin making similar complaints as word spreads around the prison system.  

But Salvatore kept records of his cases. He reviewed his investigation into the Porter murders and knew Porter was guilty. He knew his innocence and Porter’s guilt could be proven again in the civil trial. Porter’s claims of being framed were easily refuted by the facts of his investigation, as well as Grand Jury testimony. 

But Salvatore also knew the media hoopla surrounding Porter’s exoneration drowned out his arguments and intimidated city attorneys. 

Undaunted, Salvatore spent the first years of his retirement pressing his arguments with city attorneys, demanding that they take the civil case to trial. City attorneys balked, passing the case off to a private attorney, Walter Jones. At first, Jones was going to settle, but after Salvatore explained the police investigation and walked Jones through the crime scene, Jones saw Porter was guilty. They went to trial and won. Jones’ strategy argued not the detectives were guilty of any wrongdoing, but that Porter was guilty. Porter got nothing. 

The trial verdict was a crucial moment and a great opportunity for the law enforcement community, none more so than the FOP. After all, here was the most influential wrongful conviction case in the state’s history suddenly and completely obliterated. At the time of the civil trial in 2005, the wrongful conviction movement had become a cottage industry in Chicago. Several law firms with a history of anti-police radicalism were leveling the exact same accusations against the police that Porter’s lawyers and Northwestern had. Dozens of detectives were facing similar lawsuits. 

With the evidence that Salvatore had dug up against Northwestern, along with the growing evidence that Protess was lying about the case, that he bribed witnesses, that he had knowingly released a guilty man, and knowingly framed an innocent one, the FOP could have mortally damaged the wrongful conviction movement. The opportunities are too many to list. But just think if the FOP had confronted prosecutors and the media with the evidence of corruption at Northwestern all the way back in 2005 in the wake of the civil case. Imagine if the FOP had demanded the prosecutor take a long look at what was going on at Northwestern in light of the Porter scandal. 

Salvatore saw the opportunities clearly. He said that after the verdict he walked up to then-FOP President Mark Donahue in 2005 and asked him about pressing the Porter case with prosecutors and the media, calling a press conference, for example, as a means of the FOP fighting back.

Donahue refused, said Salvatore. 

Equally important, detectives from other cases in which offenders had been released from prison were also aching to go to civil trial, desperate to show in yet another legal proceeding that their investigation was not only legitimate, it was right. But the city settled in many of them, enraging the detectives. 

These detectives should have been gathered together by the union and given a voice. Amassing the evidence that all these detectives could put together would have been devastating to the wrongful conviction movement. But the union did not do it. 

The movement grew over time. As it gained in wealth and celebrity, its advocates burrowed deeper into academic institutions, which gave them more legitimacy. They formed deeper alliances with the media community. There was no one they couldn’t get out of prison. The fraudulent cases lined up: Porter, Hobley, Patterson, Kitchen, Reeves, Harris…Every one of them, like the Porter case, stunk. 

Fed up, Salvatore moved into retirement, his crucial crusade to set the Porter case right, one that could have been a lethal blow to the movement, ignored by the powers that ostensibly represent the police. 

In the meantime, hundreds of other police officers, particularly detectives, felt the weight of the wrongful conviction machine. They were called down to the offices of Loevy and Loevy for the 12-hour depositions, lying awake at night wondering what would happen to their careers and their retirement. The city generally settled the cases with the law firms, making the firms and their clients filthy rich. And with every settlement, the activists could push the mythology that the police were racist thugs once again. The FOP did little to nothing to fight these settlements. The cops were left to fend for themselves with attorneys provided by the city. 

No conspiracy can last forever. The evidence that Protess at Northwestern was committing crimes in his efforts to free inmates increased. Even Northwestern couldn’t deny it after a while. In 2011, the school fired Protess, admitting that he regularly lied about his cases to them. They admitted he had altered evidence in another wrongful conviction case and they sent him on his way.

Lying? Altering evidence? Wouldn’t this have been a perfect opportunity for the FOP to ask a crucial question of both the media and the prosecutor: Why wasn’t Protess indicted? Why are cops indicted for these offenses but not a professor from Northwestern? Isn’t this evidence of malfeasance particularly damning in light of Protess’ conduct in the Porter case? How ‘bout an Op/Ed piece in the Tribune, asking these questions? How ‘bout the Op/Ed piece also asking why not one other wrongful conviction law firm, some of whom worked closely with Protess and Northwestern, ever observed these abuses or took action on them? Is this a sign that these firms are all working in concert, the FOP could ask. 

Rather than being indicted, Protess moved out of Northwestern and formed his own Innocence Project downtown, called the Chicago Innocence Project (CHIP), carrying on with his mission to release criminals. He met with some success. Protess’ CHIP took credit for the release of Stanley Wrice, a convicted rapist whose crime was so cruel and offensive he was sentenced to 100 years in prison. After Protess got Wrice free, Wrice’s lawyers filed for a Certificate of Innocence, but the judge refused it, saying he believed Wrice was guilty and that the recantation witnesses Protess brought forth were lying. 

The FOP remained silent once again. It could have confronted Protess, the media, and the prosecutor on yet another glaring sign of corruption that should merit greater scrutiny of every Protess case, going back to his tenure at Northwestern. Here was a rapist convicted of also burning the victim so badly she was airlifted to the Loyola burn unit, and a judge is now saying he was guilty. 

More evidence of corruption emerged in the movement last year. Another key wrongful conviction case imploded when judges ruled they believed recantation witnesses brought forth by movement law firms were lying. The witness, Willie Johnson, pleaded guilty to perjury. This case involved three wrongful conviction law firms/law departments, Loevy and Loevy, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. Here were more clear signs that the entire movement was bringing forth fraudulent witnesses, just as David Protess at Northwestern did.

The FOP did nothing, said nothing.  

Nevertheless, without any assistance from the union, the Conviction Project and a community of lawyers, private investigators, and a journalist pressed the Cook County State’s Attorney to release from prison Alstory Simon, the man framed for the murders that Porter committed. This group claimed Simon was coerced into confessing by Protess, Ciolino, and the Northwestern investigators. Members of this group sat down with FOP members and begged for some assistance, begged for some cooperation with the union, but got little response. 

One wonders why a ragtag collection of people were putting pressure on the state’s attorney, but the FOP never took up the cause. Isn’t this really the kind of work the FOP should be engaged in, protecting detectives who are falsely accused? 

In response to the allegations made by the Conviction Project and its allies, as well as the evidence they uncovered, the prosecutor released Simon after a year-long review, assailing Protess and Northwestern in the process, calling their conduct likely criminal.

This ruling, along with all the evidence garnered from the three decades of the Porter saga, was more than enough for the FOP to finally do battle with the wrongful conviction movement on behalf of its members. Here it is the prosecutor’s office reversing a wrongful conviction cases and suggesting that the movement activists were acting illegally. 

Once again, though, the FOP remained completely silent. 

Remember when Ryan let out four killers after the Porter exoneration, without any legal basis whatsoever? Remember how David Protess was fired from Northwestern, how the school and prosecutors admitted he lied about his cases and manipulated evidence, but was never charged? Remember how the union did nothing to stop these abuses against their members? Well, it got much, much worse. 

The power of this movement reached a new and depraved low this year. The wrongful conviction movement sailed along for years getting inmates out on the claim that they were tortured or coerced by police. But this time they were able to garner the release of an inmate who actually attempted to murder police officers. 

In the waning moments of Governor Pat Quinn’s scandal-plagued administration, Quinn secretly commuted the sentence of Howard Morgan, a man who had been convicted of attempting to murder four police officers on a traffic stop in 2005, wounding three of them. One of officers was saved only because of his vest. These officers endured a nine-year battle to get Morgan convicted, as the wrongful conviction playbook was hurled at them throughout two criminal trials, a playbook that attempted to make them the villains, not Morgan, despite the overwhelming evidence against Morgan. 

And who took credit for springing Morgan? 

None other than David Protess, who boasted about the fact that his organization freed Morgan, the same David Protess who framed the detectives in the Porter case, who altered evidence in another case, lied to Northwestern University and was fired, the same David Protess whose conduct the prosecutor assailed when she let Alstory Simon out of prison, a man Protess had framed for murders he didn’t commit. 

Perhaps if the FOP had stood up to Northwestern back in 1999, Protess would have been disgraced, or eventually criminally charged, and not been able to pull off freeing Morgan years later. Perhaps if the union had spoken out after the Porter civil trial once again proved the Northwestern case was a fraud. Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps…well, so it goes.   

And the FOP’s response to Morgan’s release from prison after being convicted of four counts of attempted murder? A hasty, tepid, poorly written post and email blast on their website condemning the decision by the governor. 

Chicago Police live in a world of unrelenting irony. Killers become victims, Detectives become criminals. Prosecutors seem to be working for the defense. The three-decade failure of the FOP to confront the evidence of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement begs one more level of this irony. 

That irony takes shape in the union itself, as if even the FOP, the institution that ostensibly represents the police, is just another cog in the Crooked City.