Martin Preib

Award-winning Writer





Attention, Please: Eric Zorn Has A Memo

It was a tough July night in 2015 for Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. He walked into Siskel Film Center to see the local premier of a documentary about the exoneration of Anthony Porter for a double murder in 1999.

Porter’s exoneration had been the climax of the media’s relentless mythology that the police are crooked, willing to frame innocent men for crimes they didn’t do. Part of that mythology included the notion that Chicago’s criminal justice system could only be saved by a collection of devoted and uncompromising journalists, who would not quit until they uncovered the real truth. And so after the Porter exoneration, “investigative journalists” pressed on with one wrongful conviction case after another.

But as Zorn walked into the Siskel Film Center, things weren’t going so well with this mythology, one Zorn had embraced throughout his career. He was about to sit through a documentary, A Murder In the Park, arguing that Porter’s exoneration was false, accomplished by a Northwestern University Professor, David Protess, and his private investigator, Paul Ciolino. The documentary would allege that Porter committed the murders and another man, Alstory Simon, was framed to spring Porter. The documentary argues that Simon was framed through promises that he would get a short sentence and wealth through movie and book deals if only Simon confessed to the murders.

One person attending the screening was Alstory Simon himself. He had been recently released from prison after a year-long review of the case by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who assailed the conduct of Protess and Ciolino after her investigation was completed. 

After the documentary, a panel discussion was scheduled with Zorn as one of the panelists. 

But this wasn’t a crowd of starry-eyed suburban Northwestern students filled with the romance of freeing a wrongfully convicted killer. Rather, it was comprised of many police officers and detectives, active and retired, who knew their way around a crime scene and a murder case. They had endured for years Zorn’s columns arguing police misconduct and corruption.

By the end of the movie, they demanded answers. Zorn reportedly defended Northwestern and Protess, despite all the evidence cited in the movie that Porter was in fact the killer. The crowd became hostile. There was shouting, cursing, objects thrown.

It was one of the few times a wrongful conviction journalist in Chicago was forced to endure questions and evidence of wrongdoing in front of a collection of police officers.

Zorn is still sticking with the wrongful conviction narrative in the Porter case still.  

This week, he published an article dismissing Simon’s innocence claims. It’s a compelling article not so much because of the argument it makes, but because it shows the lengths to which a member of the Chicago media will go to bolster the anti-police mythology that has built the careers of so many journalists.

And it might be among the last few cards Zorn can play before the whole narrative moves back into a courtroom and away from the bizarre court of public opinion where Zorn and other wrongful conviction journalists have presided for three decades.

In his column, Zorn trots out a letter Alstory Simon wrote in 2000 allegedly to an attorney shortly after Simon went to prison for the murders. In the letter, Simon admitted to the murders. This is nothing new. There are several letters in which Simon made such admissions.

This is Zorn’s “aha” moment.

But the evidence, taken together, paints are larger, more ambiguous picture. Between the time Alstory Simon was taken into custody and when he gave his confession in court, he vacillated time and again about whether he should confess to the murders. Simon’s confusion over what to do took the shape of conflicting statements and actions.

After he was sent to prison, Simon stated that he held out hope a deal was still in place and wrote correspondence and did interviews admitting to the murders. That’s when he realized that confessing was a foolish move, he said, and that’s when he began the long trek of proving his innocence.

The evidence from this period of the Porter saga reveals a man making conflicting statements, hardly the smoking gun Zorn portrays in Simon’s letters.

Later in the week, Zorn trots out another column alleging “bombshell” developments in the case by citing a memo obtained by the Tribune from the prosecutor’s office. The memo reportedly calls into question Simon’s innocence.

This is a “bombshell”?

Attorneys for Alstory Simon have a criminal trial, a grand jury hearing, a civil trial, and a certificate of innocence hearing, that established Porter’s guilt or Simon’s innocence. A year-long review by Cook County State’s Attorney called into question Simon’s conviction and assailed the conduct of Protess and Ciolino. Numerous witnesses have stepped up, alleging misconduct in the Northwestern investigation. Northwestern University cited misconduct in Protess’ investigation before he left the school in the midst of a scandal.

Eric Zorn has a memo.

Furthermore, the history of Zorn’s coverage of the Porter case begs its own questions about his current coverage on the case. 

Consider the pivotal year 2005, for example.  

After Porter got out of prison in 1999, he filed a lawsuit against the detectives, alleging they framed him. The detectives, certain they could show a jury that their investigation and prosecution of Porter was accurate, fought desperately for this case to go to trial. They convinced their lawyer, Walter Jones, that Porter was guilty, despite the fact that Porter had been exonerated. Jones agreed to go to trial and essentially retried Porter’s original murder trial, proving all over again that Porter did it.

After the trial, a befuddled reporter asked Jones how it was that Porter could get no money. Zorn was apparently listening as Jones pointed to Porter and said Porter was the killer.

Furious that Jones dared contradict the wrongful conviction narrative, Zorn wrote a scathing indictment of Jones in a column the following day:

Yet Tuesday, shortly after the jury's verdict was announced, Walter Jones, the attorney representing the city, pointed to the table in the courtroom where Porter sat during the trial and told Tribune reporter Charles Sheehan: "The killer has been sitting in that room right there all day."

It was a stunning, graceless and infamous accusation.

Anthony Porter was innocent.

Zorn wrote that in 2005. He wrote this week yet again the argument that Simon is guilty of the murders.

Now who’s leveling “stunning, graceless and infamous” accusations?

Interview with Walter Jones About Eric Zorn's Coverage of Porter Civil Trial

Why does Eric Zorn have so much trouble seeing what juries and judges have seen so clearly in the thirty-year travesty that is the Anthony Porter saga? One can only speculate.

But this case is heading back to the courtroom, in front of a jury once again, and it might be a rough ride for Zorn and the Chicago journalists who argued that Porter was innocent and Simon guilty, rougher even than being a panelist on a film discussion in front of a crowd of Chicago cops.