As a key wrongful conviction case from Northwestern University implodes, a disturbing view of radicalism at Northwestern University is taking shape, one that reveals a dangerous and violent “ends justify the means” ideology operating at the school.
Northwestern is currently under fire for the 1999 exoneration of Anthony Porter, convicted of a 1982 double homicide in Washington Park. The Porter exoneration was the result of a Northwestern “investigation” into the case. Porter’s release from prison transformed the Illinois criminal justice system and played a pivotal role in Governor Ryan’s decision to end the death penalty.
Now the Cook County State’s Attorney is reviewing the case based upon a large body of evidence indicating the exoneration was little more than a conspiracy, perpetuated by a professor named David Protess, his private investigator Paul Ciolino, a lawyer, and several students at the school’s Innocence Project.
To many police, investigators, and attorneys, the Porter scandal is no surprise. These critics have been arguing for decades that many wrongful conviction claims, from Porter to Madison Hobley to Ronald Kitchen are a sham, perpetuated by a group of lawyers, academics, activists, and their allies in the press, all driven by an intense radical agenda whose aim is not to free the innocent, but to undermine the justice system.
The tactics of these activists is to take the case away from the courtroom and into the press rooms, where a compliant local media gives full voice to their wrongful conviction claims without checking the facts.
Northwestern Hires a Terrorist
One of the first alarms that something dreadfully wrong was taking place at Northwestern was 2001, when the university hired Bernadine Dohrn at their law school. Professor Dohrn strikes a strange figure as a university professor. She was once a leader in a terrorist group called the Weather Underground (WU). The group was a collection of radical students and activists in the late 60s who broke away from the Students for a Democratic Society and decided they wanted to use violence to end the war in Vietnam and initiate a Marxist revolution in America. Their preferred method was setting off bombs throughout the country.
A main focus of the Weather Underground’s intense hatred was the country’s criminal justice system, particularly the police, with whom they battled in the 1968 Chicago riots. This hatred was revealed in the fact that several of their bombing targets were police districts throughout the country.
The WU members sold themselves as activists operating from some higher calling. They claimed they never hurt anyone but themselves when three members accidentally blew themselves up while preparing for a bombing at an army base in New Jersey, a bombing that could have killed hundreds. Because of this incident, WU members claimed they had a change of heart and avoided violence.
But to many people, particularly those in law enforcement, these claims were a lie. Weather Underground, these investigators argued, was a dangerous collection of criminals using the veneer of anti-war activism and civil rights to carry out their crimes.
As a sign of the group’s true character, these officials point to evidence uncovered by federal investigations that Dohrn was part of a 1970 bombing of a San Francisco police station that killed a sergeant and wounded eight other police officers.
Sergeant Brian McDonnell was killed when a bomb placed on the window sill of his precinct in the Upper Haight neighborhood exploded. Investigators believed the bomb was timed to go off at the change of shift when the room would have been crowded with police officers, but malfunctioned.
Many investigators on the McDonnell murder believe there is compelling evidence that Dohrn was one of the bombers.
“This whole image that these were nice-type people is what makes me upset. It's bullshit. That's not what they were. They were thugs, and they were criminals trying to overthrow the U.S. government,” said retired FBI Agent Max Noel in a 2009 River Front Times article.
Statements that Dohrn was one of the offenders came from different sources. One source was Larry Grathwohl, the only person to infiltrate the Weather Underground. Grathwohl reported his findings on the group to the FBI.
Grathwohl stated that while he was in the group, a leader of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, who would go on to marry Dohrn, admitted Dohrn had set off the bomb in San Francisco.
Federal authorities also gathered statements from informants implicating Dohrn. The evidence was convincing to many federal authorities. These investigators couldn’t understand why Dohrn was never indicted for the murder of Sgt. McDonnell.
In the 2009 expose on the case in the River Front Times, journalist Peter Jamison spoke to retired FBI agent Willie Reagan.
“Reviewing the bureau's files in 2000…it was plain to Reagan that the case against the Weathermen went well beyond a solitary piece of after-the-fact hearsay relayed by an FBI mole [Grathwohl]. When he [Reagan] read the statements from the other two informants, who had independently supplied similar details about Weather Underground members conspiring to bomb Park Station, [Reagan] had one thought: Why didn't they prosecute?” wrote Jamison.
The San Francisco Police Union wrote a letter in 2003 asking federal authorities to indict Dohrn for the McDonnels’s murder.
"There are irrefutable and compelling reasons to believe that Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn ... are largely responsible for the bombing of Park Police Station," the letter said.
Another sign of the group's violent motives was the bombing of a judge’s home on the east coast. The judge was presiding over a trial involving members of the Black Panther Party. In February of 1970, three gasoline bombs were set off at the judge’s home while the judge and his family slept. The family was saved by the heroic actions of neighbors. Many claim this too was a WU bombing. Even former members of the group claimed they were responsible.
The supposed conviction not to harm anyone didn’t last very long. In 1982, two “former” members of the WU, now working with the Black Liberation Army, drove a getaway car for a Brinks armored car robbery in New York State. WU member Kathy Boudin deceived two cops into lowering their weapon after the police officers pulled over the truck Boudin and the other offenders were driving. The officers, who were looking for black offenders, were tricked by Boudin’s ruse. After they lowered their weapons, offenders jumped out of the truck and gunned down the officers.
Boudin was paroled in 2003. She is now a university professor, like Dohrn.
Dohrn, Ayers, and other Weathermen members were able to avoid prosecution for their terrorist actions because the courts ruled evidence had been gathered illegally against them by the FBI. But many federal investigators wonder why Dohrn has not been indicted for the San Fancisco bombing, since there is no statute of limitations on murder.
With charges related to her other bombings dropped, Dohrn was free to enter legitimate society. It was quite a transformation. Once a frothing revolutionary calling for the violent end of America and praising mass murderer Charles Manson as a true revolutionary, Dohrn quietly moved into a cushy position in Chicago academia. She ended up at Northwestern University's Law School, eventually working on wrongful conviction cases involving minors.
It’s difficult for many police officers to imagine how a woman who once went around calling on people to revolt against “the pigs”—and one who may very well have murdered a cop—could ever judge a criminal case fairly, but Northwestern University seemed perfectly comfortable with bringing her into the Northwestern fold. Only a few alumni protested the school’s hiring her.
Dohrn wasn’t the only former Weatherman to move into the Ivory Towers. Her husband, Bill Ayers, also a founding member of the terrorist group, eventually became a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Neither Dohrn nor Ayers never backed away from their radical philosophies or their support for revolutionary violence. They claim to this day they did not murder Sgt. McDonnel.
His murder remains unsolved.
Whether or not one believes Dorhn was involved in the murder of Sgt. McDonnel, her terrorist actions reveal an “ends justify the means” mentality, one that may well have been willing to kill and maim and to lie in the pursuit of her radical ideology.
Ends Justify Means…
The same “ends justify the means” ideology flourished in another department, Northwestern’s venerated Medill School of Journalism, where another controversial professor enjoyed wide support from faculty members and students. This professor, David Protess, was given great freedom to investigate criminal cases as head of a sub-department in the journalism schoolcalled The Innocence Project.
David Protess attained international attention after he led a successful campaign to free four men accused of rape and murder in the infamous Ford Heights Four Murder. Claiming DNA evidence pointed to other offenders, the four men were exonerated and settled for more than $30 million.
Despite Protess’ success in overturning this conviction, a wild claim by a witness in the case emerged. This witness, who never wavered from his statement that he saw the exonerated individuals take part in the crime, said David Protess approached him and offered that he, the witness, could “use” one of the Northwestern students in exchange for altered testimony. The witness said he was shocked and outraged at the alleged offer by Protess.
The claim was so wild, no one paid much attention to it.
Rather, Protess rode the wave of praise for the Ford Heights Four exoneration.
As a teacher at Northwestern, Protess taught one Innocence Project class every semester. He and other students pored through criminal cases looking for what they said was evidence of wrongful conviction. Finding examples of what they claimed were police or prosecutorial oversight or outright corruption, they pressed their claims in the media and courts. The exonerations started piling up. Protess brought the journalism school more attention and awards.
Everything seemed to be going great for the Innocence Project and the wrongful conviction movement. Protess and a few other law firms and university departments specializing in wrongful conviction together sued cities over cases, often settling without a trial, much to the anger of the detectives who worked the cases.
Whispers of dissent from police and prosecutors familiar with Protess’ wrongful conviction cases lingered throughout police districts, union meetings, and the halls of the prosecutor’s office. But these murmurings were dismissed by Chicago’s local media, for whom Protess and his wrongful conviction allies had become rock stars. The local media ate up Protess’ claims, rarely bothering to hear the police or prosecutorial side of the cases, let alone reviewing the police reports and transcripts.
But by 2011, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez had had enough. She dug in on one of Protess’ wrongful conviction claims. Alvarez demanded all emails and records from students and professors involved in a wrongful conviction case for a man named Anthony McKinney, who had been convicted of murdering a security guard in 1978.
This demand by the State’s Attorney for the records in the McKinney case was one of the first times prosecutors fought back on a wrongful conviction investigation. Protess and Northwestern initially ridiculed the request by the State’s Attorney, saying the school did not have to turn over the emails because their investigation was protected by Illinois shield laws for journalists. The local media dismissed her actions as nothing more than sour grapes at having been embarrassed by Protess and the university on so many other cases.
Not so, the State’s Attorney argued. Protess and his students were not acting as journalists, Alvarez argued. Instead, Protess and his students were passing their information on to defense attorneys in the case, attorneys who just happened to work at Northwestern’s Law School, the same place where Dohrn was employed. Protess and the journalism students, were, in fact, working as defense investigators, she argued.
A judge in the McKinney cased reviewed Northwestern’s investigation and issued a bombshell ruling. The judge agreed with the State’s Attorney that Protess and his students were not acting as journalists. The judge ordered that Northwestern must turn over its records.
One question was never really asked in the wake of this ruling: What was a group of students and a professors in a journalism school doing working as investigators for defense attorneys?They were supposed to learning the strategies and ethics of good journalism at one of the country’s most prestigious schools. But now a judge had ruled that they were nothing more than investigators for the defense.
In any case, the music stopped at Northwestern. In the course of reviewing the materials the school was forced to turn over, the school’s attorney observed that Protess had doctored records and lied to the university. Shifting into damage control mode, Northwestern initiated their own internal investigation into Protess.
After the investigation, the school removed Protess from teaching his Innocence Project class —in effect, firing him. It was quite a fall for the once internationally revered, tenured professor. His Innocence Project class had resulted in the freeing of eleven offenders at the time of his exit from the school.
Northwestern issued a bombshell statement about Protess:
“The review uncovered numerous examples of Protess knowingly making false and misleading statements to the dean, to University attorneys, and to others. Such actions undermine the integrity of Medill, the University, the Innocence Project, students, alumni, faculty, the press, the public, the State and the Court,” the statement read.
In short, the investigation revealed a professor, like Dohrn, who was willing to break the rules to achieve his own ends, even if for Protess it meant lying to the school, his own lawyer, prosecutors, and altering documents. It’s important to remember that Protess was arguing about murder cases, about putting individuals convicted of the most brutal murders back onto the street. If Protess was lying about this case, were there others? If so, it was a level of radicalism not unlike Dohrn’s willingness to bomb police stations, to kill the “pigs,” in her pursuit to overthrow the justice system.
Northwestern’s statement about being committed to integrity when school leaders released Protess rings somewhat false. Didn’t the fact that the university hired a former terrorist bomber, one who many believed was linked to the unsolved murder of a police officer, didn’t that decision already undermine Northwestern’s integrity? Hadn’t the school undermined its integrity further when it allowed a person with Dohrn’s background to work on wrongful conviction cases?
To get an idea of the mentality of the Weather Underground activists, consider what Dohrn once said about the Charles Manson murders:
“Dig it! First they killed those pigs and then they put a fork in pig Tate's belly. Wild! Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room, far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson!”
One wonders exactly what kind of people Northwestern was hiring to educate its young people.
Just as the local media never batted an eye when Northwestern hired Dohrn, the local media never asked another obvious question in response to Northwestern’s statement about Protess: How deep did his lying go?
The Anthony Porter Conspiracy
It turns out Protess’ willingness to lie went very deep, indeed. It wasn’t just a few emails Protess altered or the fact that he had lied to the school about his investigation. To see the depth of deception taking place at Northwestern, all anyone had to do was review the evidence in the Anthony Porter case.
Anthony Porter was a career gang enforcer convicted of killing a couple in Washington Park in 1982. He was tried and sentenced to death, due in part to his violent criminal record. Protess and his students got involved in the case in 1998, eventually declaring that Porter was innocent, the victim of a police frame up. Protess, his Private Investigator Paul Ciolino, and his students claimed another man, Alstory Simon, was responsible for the killings. The Northwestern investigators were able to obtain a bizarre “confession” from Simon, who lingers in prison to this day.
The Porter murders became a rallying cry for the wrongful conviction movement. Here was a man just a few days away from being executed and Protess’ Innocence Project announced he was innocent. Bowing to the intense media pressure Protess and his allies held in the city, prosecutors released Porter without even reviewing the evidence collected by Protess and his group, despite the fact that there was intense disagreement in the prosecutor’s office about releasing Porter and accepting Simon’s confession. The case made international news. Governor Ryan, citing the Porter case specifically, ended the death penalty. Following Porter’s release, a flood of similar claims was made by inmates.
Nevertheless, an overwhelming body of evidence still points to Porter as the killer. The original criminal trial, a grand jury hearing in 1999, a civil trial against the detectives in 2005, all concluded Porter was the shooter. Just as prosecutors reviewed the McKinney case and discovered Protess had been lying and doctoring records, the Porter exoneration revealed a mindboggling level of deception and prejudice against the criminal justice system:
- Protess and his students admitted in a grand jury hearing that they never bothered to talk to four of six crucial witnesses in the case, witnesses who all pointed to Porter as the offender. One of these witnesses was an eyewitness and provided statements so detailed that they completely matched other witness statements, a clear sign to detectives and prosecutors that these witnesses were telling the truth.
- Protess and Ciolino hounded one of the eyewitnesses in the case to change his statement. Eventually this witness stated under oath the only reason he changed his testimony was that he was tired of being harassed by the Northwestern investigators.
- All the supposed eyewitnesses who supported Protess’ theory that Porter was innocent recanted and admitted they only made these statements as part of a conspiracy with Protess to get Anthony Porter out of prison. These admissions of conspiracy with Protess never got Chicago’s media machine interested. They were largely ignored or dismissed.
- The facts of the police investigation refute in their entirety the Northwestern claims that Porter was innocent.
- In 2005, Porter’s lawyers went to court against the detectives based on the Northwestern investigation that freed Porter. The attorney for the detectives reviewed the facts of the case and concluded Porter was guilty. The attorney argued his theory in court and won, virtually re-convicting Porter. In the course of his preparation for the case, the attorney found even more witnesses who came forward and fingered Porter.
The Northwestern theory that Porter was innocent entered an absurd world.
As Porter’s civil trial approached, for example, he suddenly claimed more than two decades after the murders that detectives Dennis Gray and Charles Salvatore tortured him. There was one problem with this claim: The detectives never met Porter in the course of their investigation. Salvatore and Gray, along with the prosecutor, only had a warrant issued for Porter’s arrest based on witness statements. No one from Northwestern, nor any journalist in Chicago, ever asked an obvious question: How did detectives torture a man they had not met?
Like the Weather Underground with their bombing of police stations, Protess’ conduct in his investigation betrays an unconscionable bias against the police, a willingness to hang them no matter what, even if it means freeing a killer.
It almost worked against detectives Gray and Salvatore. The detectives spent six years being assailed for their conduct in the case, facing claims that they willfully framed the wrong man, even tortured him.
“I’m telling you. It was tough. It was really tough. It was hard on me. It was hard on my family. I didn’t do any of what they were saying,” Salvatore said.
But perhaps the most glaring abuse in the Porter case was the “confession” by Alstory Simon obtained by the Northwestern investigators. In order to free Porter, Protess, his private investigator Paul Ciolino and the students somehow got Alstory Simon, in 1999 —on a cold February morning sixteen years after the murders — to admit to the killings.
Nothing like it had ever mades its way into a Chicago courtroom.
Shortly after Simon was convicted, he retracted this confession. Simon claimed Ciolino burst into his apartment with a gun that February morning and threatened violence against him. He said Ciolino claimed he (Ciolino) was a cop and Simon was about to be arrested for the murders. Ciolino showed documents from witnesses that stated Simon was the killer and not Porter, then advised him he could get the death penalty. Threatening Simon with life in prison and even violence if he didn’t cooperate, Ciolino, according to Simon, forced Simon into making a taped confession to the two murders.
Simon made an accusation that was by now frequent in cases where Protess and Ciolino were involved: that Simon would only serve a short time in prison and would become rich from movie and book deals if he went along with their plan. What made these accusations so troubling is that they had arisen from witnesses in other cases completely unrelated to the Porter exoneration.
Independent matching witness statements are one basis of building what investigators call modus operandi; that is, evidence of a pattern of criminal activity. That these accusations were made against Protess and Ciolino in other cases never compelled the local media to take them into consideration. Yet Simon’s attorneys have argued that Protess and Ciolino engaged in a pattern of “coercive conduct.”
In one of the most incredible twists in the confession, Ciolino corroborates the claim that Simon asked for an attorney. Ciolino picked up the phone at Simon’s apartment and called an attorney who was a personal friend back in Chicago, Jack Rimland.
It was one of the darkest chapters in Chicago’s criminal justice system. A man trying to get another man to confess to a murder obtains a lawyer for that man, a lawyer who tells his client not to exercise his right to remain silent, but instead confess to murders sixteen years after the fact.
In addition to not telling Simon to remain silent, Rimland didn’t tell Simon to call the police and have Ciolino removed. Rather, he encouraged Simon to plead guilty to the murders on tape without the attorney even reviewing the case and despite all the evidence of Simon’s innocence, including the six witnesses who still fingered Porter.
How could anyone claim Rimland was representing Simon?
Alstory Simon’s lawyers pounced on the validity of this confession and the conduct of Rimland in a letter to prosecutor Anita Alvarez, demanding that Simon be released from prison.
“…Alstory [Simon’s guilty] plea is directly attributable to provable misconduct of his attorney, Jack Rimland, who was hired by and working on behalf of Ciolino and Protess. In that role, Rimland lied to Alstory about the strength of the State’s case, and withheld explosive grand jury evidence of Porter’s guilt from both Alstory Simon and the court.”
It was a powerful irony. The wrongful conviction was built upon claims that the police, the “pigs” as Dohrn and the Weather Underground liked to call them, regularly coerced and beat confessions out of African American men, indifferent to whether the men were guilty or not. But the first time a wrongful conviction advocate obtains a confession, it is rife with allegations of abuse, coercion, lies and intimidation and a clear willingness to frame not only the cops, but an innocent man, let alone put a killer back on the street.
Northwestern’s parting statement about Protess in the McKinney case take on deeper meaning in the Porter case.
“Such actions undermine the integrity of Medill, the University, the Innocence Project, students, alumni, faculty, the press, the public, the State and the Court.”
Again, one wonders what kind of people Northwestern was foisting upon its students; first a terrorist bomber, then a renegade professor using students to undermine legitimate convictions and putting an innocent man in prison.
One question looms above all others: How many other cases were just as dirty? How many other lies had Protess foisted upon the university and the public? How deep were the deceptions in the wrongful conviction movement?
Among Chicago’s media elite, the question remains unanswered. A dark silence surrounds the city. The local media does not want to ask another central question: Who are these wrongful conviction activists and exactly what are they really after?
This article is dedicated to the memory of Larry Grathwohl.