A silence is taking shape in Chicago.
This silence requires a little history.
In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, several groups radicalized by the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights movement and a profound sympathy with Marxist philosophy, turned to terrorism as a means of initiating a revolution.
Of these groups, the Weather Underground was the most prolific. They set off bombs throughout the country, hoping that these acts of terrorism would spur the domestic chaos they believed necessary to initiate this revolution. They were placed on the FBI’s most wanted list. Members were forced to live underground, using fake names and keeping constantly on the move.
They counted on sympathizers living above ground to fund them and provide assistance.
One of their greatest supporters was the People’s Law Office, a collection of radical attorneys in Chicago, who got their start representing the families of Black Panthers killed in a shootout with police in 1969.
The intimate connection between the Weather Underground and the People’s Law Office comes as quite a surprise to many people in Chicago. Though the PLO is quoted on an almost weekly basis by a collection of journalists in the city, one would have a difficult time finding one article in Chicago’s media chronicling the law firm’s ties to one of the country’s most infamous terrorist organizations, a terrorist organization whose mantra was all about “killing the pigs.”
Despite their high-profile bombings and incendiary rhetoric, few people in the mainstream gave the Weather Underground much legitimacy. As a result, the group faced a sad realization common to many revolutionary groups, particularly Marxist groups.
“The people,” for the most part, wanted nothing to do with them.
This is eventually what happened to the Weather Underground. People became fed up with their bombing and their violence, as well as their philosophy, particularly when people caught a glimpse of just how violent and lawless the group could be. Even many on the political left became disgusted with them.
Todd Gitlin, former president of the Students for Democratic Society and writer:
“They were ready to be mass murderers. This is mass murder we are talking about. They came to this conclusion, which is the conclusion that was come to by all the great killers, whether Hitler or Stalin or Mao, that they have a grand project for the transformation and purification for the world, and in the face of that project ordinary life is dispensable. They joined that tradition. ”
The entire movement seemed to fade away; but the members who didn’t get killed, flee to Cuba, or get life sentences for other crimes, members like founding members Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn who beat their criminal charges on legal technicalities, quietly moved into academia, the law, and the media.
And so they didn’t fade away at all. Rather, they transformed the strategy of their “any means justified” attacks on the system. Specifically, they mastered the arts of public relations and media manipulation and reinvented themselves. They began a thirty-year assault on the criminal justice system, in particular the Chicago Police, lobbing one media and legal bomb after another that claimed the police were a collection of racist torturers who routinely and indifferently framed innocent men.
Bernadine Dorhn ended up at Northwestern University’s Law School, working on wrongful conviction cases.
Once frothing revolutionaries who bombed the home of a judge, nearly killing the judge, his wife, and his son, the former terrorists were now mainstream educators—even buddies with the president, disguising their revolutionary aims in the guise of what they called “civil rights.”
Here is a passage written by a man who experienced as a child their civil rights crusade first hand.
In February 1970, my father, a New York State Supreme Court justice, was presiding over the trial of the so-called “Panther 21,” members of the Black Panther Party indicted in a plot to bomb New York landmarks and department stores. Early on the morning of February 21, as my family slept, three gasoline-filled firebombs exploded at our home on the northern tip of Manhattan, two at the front door and the third tucked neatly under the gas tank of the family car. (Today, of course, we’d call that a car bomb.) A neighbor heard the first two blasts and, with the remains of a snowman I had built a few days earlier, managed to douse the flames beneath the car. That was an act whose courage I fully appreciated only as an adult, an act that doubtless saved multiple lives that night…
For the next 18 months, I went to school in an unmarked police car. My mother, a schoolteacher, had plainclothes detectives waiting in the faculty lounge all day. My brother saved a few bucks because he didn’t have to rent a limo for the senior prom: the NYPD did the driving. We all made the best of the odd new life that had been thrust upon us, but for years, the sound of a fire truck’s siren made my stomach knot and my heart race. In many ways, the enormity of the attempt to kill my entire family didn’t fully hit me until years later, when, a father myself, I was tucking my own nine-year-old John Murtagh into bed.
Wrongful conviction activists have modified their strategies. Now they toss legal and media bombs at one murder case after another, with the same unrelenting aggression their allies once firebombed the homes of judges.
It has worked. Law firms like the PLO have made millions. With that money, they have secured vast political power and celebrity status.
But now a newfound silence has enveloped their movement, a silence taking shape among their key foot soldiers in the media, the ones who played a crucial role in supporting the wrongful conviction theories.
It is a silence emerging from one key mass murder case, the Madison Hobley arson.
The reason these journalists, John Conroy, Eric Zorn, and Steve Mills, are silent is that the Hobley case undermines every tenet of the wrongful conviction movement and shows exactly the malevolence and evil at its core, stripping away the veneer of humanity and higher principle the activists claimed and revealing a sordid willingness to release the most cruel and sociopathic offenders back on society.
It was a strategy that could do more damage, in the long run, than any pipe bombs.
The Madison Hobley murders took place on January 6, 1987. Hobley, angry that his wife would not let him remain with his mistress, decided to start a fire outside his apartment, where his wife and child were sleeping.
Creating what fire investigators called a chimney effect, the fire raged swiftly and intensely throughout the building. Seven people died, including Hobley’s wife and child. Many others were injured jumping from the third floor.
At first, detectives approached Hobley as a witness, wondering how he got out of the fire, but not his family. Hobley’s account did not make much sense, so they asked him to take a lie detector test. He failed it and confessed to the cop giving the test.
He was charged, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Even though Hobley was sent to death row, one of his attorneys, De Paul University Law Professor Andrea Lyon, fought to get Hobley out, creating a narrative that Hobley was tortured into confessing to the crimes. It might seem strange that an attorney would take up such an open-and-shut murder case, but at the time Lyon began fighting for Hobley, the movement to free convicted killers—by any means necessary—was already well under way.
In fact, almost all that was required was that the detectives who worked a case had at one time worked with or under the supervision of police commander Jon Burge, the police official who became the symbol for torture in the Chicago Police Department. One of the tenets of Lyon’s claim, repeated over and over, was that the detectives in the Hobley case had worked with Burge.
Beyond these vague associations to Burge, Lyon and her supporters never truly explained the details of their theory that Hobley was framed by detectives. They never explained how detectives somehow decided to pin the murders on an innocent man, a man who had just lost his wife and child, including such elemental facts as how the detectives communicated their conspiracy amongst themselves when they were scattered all around the city, and how they could be sure their false narrative would stand up to the forensic evidence and witness accounts.
Lyon—who established a reputation among police officers in her years as a public defender for her brashness and strong anti-police bias—was never able to get her claims about Hobley to fly in a court room. Hobley lost all his appeals.
Case closed, right?
No. In Chicago, under the pressure of the wrongful conviction movement, no murder case is ever finished.
In one of the most puzzling and disturbing chapters in Chicago history, Lyon was somehow able to get then Governor George Ryan to pardon Hobley in 2003. Ryan pardoned three other men at the same time, one of whom was represented by the People’s Law Office.
Hobley’s pardon marked the first time convicted killers were exonerated by a governor without any new evidence.
New York Times:
Mr. Hobley, who was convicted of killing his wife, infant child and five others in a 1987 arson, walked out of Pontiac Correctional Center this afternoon, one of four death row inmates that Governor Ryan pardoned three days before the end of his term. 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.
It was a decision that placed the governor in direct conflict with the entire criminal justice system that convicted Hobley.
Governor Ryan’s decision came in the wake of an investigation of Ryan’s administration when he was Secretary of the State for illegally selling licenses, contracts, and leases in a corruption scam that resulted in an 18-count indictment against him under a scandal that became known as Operation Safe Road. Ryan was indicted in 2003 in federal court.
In a bitter, cruel irony, one of the cases tied to his indictment also involved a fire that took the lives of children. It was a traffic accident tied to a motorist who had illegally bought his drivers’ license. The Willis family was driving to Wisconsin in 1994 when their vehicle struck debris that had fallen from a vehicle driven by Ricardo Guzman. The debris punctured the gas tank of the Willis’ vehicle, causing it to catch fire. Six Willis children burned to death.
The image of the Willis’ car set on fire became the symbol for Ryan’s corrupt administration.
In light of the pending criminal case against Ryan, many people wondered aloud about Ryan’s motivation to set Hobley, and other convicted killers, free from prison. They wondered if his newfound passion about the injustice of the death penalty wasn’t aimed at winning political and public support in the wake of his own trial for corruption.
The question burned even brighter when it was announced that Lyon, Hobley’s attorney who had convinced Ryan to free Hobley, would represent Ryan in his own criminal trial.
Even the most stalwart wrongful conviction disciples could not ignore the overwhelming signs of quid pro quo between Lyon and Ryan.
Even Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune:
Lyon bristled at the suggestion of payback and, as I reported, said this was "absolutely not" the case…Appearances, however, remain troubling.
John Conroy, a journalist who worked at the Chicago Reader, wrote extensively about the Hobley case, alleging all kinds of criminal conduct against the investigating detectives, despite the fact that one legal proceeding after another bolstered Hobley’s conviction.
In Conroy’s long-winded analysis of largely irrelevant details about the case—details that had been brought up, and rejected, during Hobley’s trial and his appeals—Conroy ignored one central, unequivocal event in his major, breakthrough article about the arson.
Weeks before the actual arson that took the lives of seven people, two police officers responded to a call of criminal damage to property at a residence. The complainant had taken in Hobley’s wife and child after the wife left Hobley when she learned he was having an affair.
The complainant stated that Hobley had thrown a brick through the window of the residence. While she was talking to the cops, the phone rang. She told the officers that it was likely Hobley calling to make threats again. She asked one of the cops, Glenn Evans, to listen on another phone. Evans did. He heard Hobley threaten to set the woman’s residence on fire.
Conroy’s refusal to mention this arson threat weeks before Hobley actually committed an arson less than a mile away is perhaps one of the most sickening displays of the allegiance between Chicago journalists and the wrongful conviction activists.
The arson threat was a key event that convinced detectives and prosecutors of Hobley’s guilt.
Hobley’s arson threat remained in relative media obscurity, even after he was pardoned by Ryan. De Paul University went on to earn high praise and prestige for exonerating an “innocent” mass murderer.
Well, guess what happened to Conroy after he wrote these articles? Eventually he was laid off from the Chicago Reader. Then he was hired by the Better Government Association where he wrote about the Hobley case some more.
Then he ended up at—lo and behold—DePaul University, teaching investigative reporting at the same university where Andrea Lyon worked when she convinced Ryan to pardon Hobley, the same university where Ryan announced his groundbreaking decision to end the death penalty, the same university that garnered vast praise and celebrity for getting Hobley, a “wrongfully convicted” murderer out of prison, in large part through Conroy’s articles.
What a coincidence.
One wonders what exactly Conroy teaches his students. How to ignore crucial evidence for decades? How not to let any facts get in the way of your story? How to vilify the police? How to build your career by destroying the lives of others, including the family members of murder victims?
It wasn’t just a job at De Paul that Conroy gained from his years of writing wrongful conviction articles, including the ones on Jon Burge and Madison Hobley. He wrote a play based on these cases, My Kind of Town.
A main character in the play is an African American victim of police torture.
What is this character accused of in the play?
An arson that killed several people.
One wonders how many people watching Conroy’s play, which earned widespread praise in reviews, had any idea about what really happened in the Hobley case. One wonders what the public would think of Conroy’s artistic ambitions if they knew his articles helped free a mass murderer.
There is a crucial, deeper question in the Hobley case that goes to the core of the silence now surrounding it.
How did Lyon know Governor Ryan would play ball on the Hobley pardon? How did her office know to even approach Ryan? Where would such a plan to use crooked politicians in such a macabre plan come from?
Well, this is the $64,000 question.
Chicago’s corruption is such that it does not generally allow highly principled public servants to rise to the tops of its institutions. Leaders of Chicago’s institutions are powerbrokers, not public servants. They are not guided primarily by the obligations of their offices. The consequence is that the city has generally played ball with wrongful conviction activists, despite their sordid associations with the likes of the Weather Underground.
To understand how this political backscratching works, one has to look closely at another wrongful conviction exoneration a few years earlier, one that gave life to the Hobley pardon.
Investigations by Crooked City writer Martin Preib and journalist William Crawford, as well as private investigators John Delorto and John Mazzola, into the seminal Anthony Porter exoneration in 1999 for a double murder revealed that the entire basis for Porter’s exoneration was a complete fraud.
Claims that Anthony Porter, convicted of a 1982 double murder, was innocent emerged from Northwestern Professor David Protess and his private investigator Paul Ciolino.
They came forward with a confession by another man, Alstory Simon. With this confession, prosecutors set Porter free from prison and took Simon into custody. Later, Ryan pardoned Porter, amidst a media frenzy. Ryan sang the praises of Protess and Ciolino, saying he was so moved by their “investigation” that it compelled him to end the death penalty.
It also precipitated his decision to then pardon Hobley, and others.
Anthony Porter’s exoneration in 1999 for a double homicide has now been shown by prosecutors, the courts, and the evidence to be a fraud, just as Preib and Crawford had argued.
Last year, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez released Alstory Simon from prison, saying his constitutional rights had been violated by Protess and Ciolino when they coerced a confession from Simon. Then, earlier this year, a judge declared that Simon was innocent.
It was a bombshell announcement, undermining the central case that formed the basis of the wrongful conviction mythology in Chicago.
Governor Ryan, shortly before he himself would go to prison, described the influence of the Porter case in 2003 when he ended the death penalty, citing in particular the work of Tribune reporter Steve Mills:
I never intended to be an activist on this issue. I watched in surprise as freed death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail. A free man, he ran into the arms of Northwestern University Professor Dave Protess who poured his heart and soul into proving Porter's innocence with his journalism students.
He was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him.
It would all be so antiseptic and most of us would not have even paused, except that Anthony Porter was innocent of the double murder for which he had been condemned to die.
After Mr. Porter's case there was the report by Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong documenting the systemic failures of our capital punishment system. Half of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois had been reversed for a new trial or resentencing.
Now that the Porter case has fallen apart, one wonders how it was that Governor Ryan, with all the staff and resources available to him, did not observe the overwhelming evidence of Porter’s guilt and Simon’s innocence and the corruption permeating Northwestern’s investigation into the case.
Equally so, how did Ryan not see it in other cases, like Hobley’s?
And most importantly, one wonders how journalists like Steve Mills “missed” this evidence.
Well, the key to understanding how wrongful conviction attorneys like Lyon could get public officials to do their bidding, despite abundant evidence, in defiance of the law, is rooted in the Porter case as well.
One has to go back to one crucial moment in 1999 when former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine was approached with the “evidence” of Porter’s guilt and Simon’s innocence.
At that time, a fight broke out at the prosecutor’s office over the case. The Chief of the Criminal Division, Thomas Epach, argued to the head of the prosecutor’s office, Dick Devine, that Porter was guilty and should not be released. Epach’s arguments were futile. Devine, bowing to the media pressure, let Porter out and indicted Alstory Simon.
One reason Devine gave in to Northwestern investigators was the constant barrage of articles in the Chicago Tribune, many of them authored by Steve Mills and Eric Zorn, pounding the Porter innocence story.
While it is no excuse for a prosecutor to base his decisions on media pressure, it is also no excuse that reporters and columnists should wield their positions in such an underhanded, duplicitous manner.
But the fact remains that from the moment Devine bowed to the will of wrongful conviction activists like Protess and his Northwestern allies, wrongful conviction attorneys knew three things: They knew they had a collection of journalists willing to go along with their theories without questioning their claims; they knew these journalists would hammer public officials until these officials relented; and they knew that once public officials gave in to their demands, they in effect “owned” these officials, and they could push their demands even further.
When Dick Devine let Porter go free and took Alstory Simon into custody, wrongful conviction attorneys had essentially turned the prosecutor’s office into a co-conspirator, because the prosecutor had heard and chose to ignore strong arguments from the Chief of the Criminal Division that Porter was guilty and Simon was innocent.
It was more than just a crime.
It was the beginning of a revolution.
Turning the prosecutor’s office was nothing less than a coup for the wrongful conviction movement. It was a newfound manner of destroying the legal system, far more effective than crude explosive devices their ideological allies and colleagues set off at police stations and the homes of judges thirty years earlier. And it was a kind of legal bombing that would make them wealthy through the subsequent civil lawsuits against the city, the once near poverty stricken Marxists from the 1970s now making millions through undermining the establishment.
There was also another crucial benefit for the wrongful conviction activists and the journalists in turning the prosecutors. They now had a legal and moral “out” card.
They could blame the prosecutor for freeing the inmates, saying it was the prosecutor’s decision in the end, not the journalists.
That’s exactly what Eric Zorn is doing now:
But advocates and journalists don't convene grand juries to weigh evidence and don't appear in front of judges to recommend sentences. Advocates and journalists didn't put Alstory Simon behind bars and fling open the doors to Anthony Porter's cell, Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine did.
The wrongful conviction zealots like David Protess played the Cook County Prosecutor like a fiddle.
The whole thing worked like clockwork until Simon was set free last year and the evidence of the criminal conduct by Protess and Ciolino came to light.
Now the three journalists—Conroy, Mills, and Zorn— will never, in any way, follow the evidence of corruption in the Porter case to Hobley’s. It just won’t happen, even though it is the only logical course of inquiry for any legitimate journalist.
The central point is that from the Porter exoneration in 1999 until today, the wrongful conviction activists have steadily and insidiously infiltrated the political system, starting when they manipulated State’s Attorney Dick Devine’s office into releasing Porter.
That infiltration extended into the Governor’s office and beyond, beginning with Ryan and culminating in his decision to free Hobley.
Consider the following:
In the waning moments of his scandal-plagued administration, former Governor Patrick Quinn commuted the 40-year sentence of Howard Morgan, a man convicted on four counts of attempted murder against four police officers. Three of the officers were wounded in a shootout with Morgan in 2005 during a traffic stop. Morgan’s release left prosecutors and police dumbfounded, as they had fought for nine years to see him convicted. His case had been championed by wrongful conviction activists, including David Protess, the same David Protess who had conspired to free Anthony Porter. Like Ryan’s decision to pardon Hobley, Quinn’s decision contradicted the vast evidence of guilt established through two trials of Morgan.
Former Governor Quinn also commuted the sentence of another man, Willie Johnson, convicted of perjury in another wrongful conviction bid. Johnson was represented by wrongful conviction heavyweight Loevy and Loevy. Northwestern University’s Law School was also involved in the case. Johnson came before a judge and recanted his testimony from decades earlier that put two gang members in prison for a double murder. A judge said he didn’t buy Johnson’s recantation. The prosecutor also didn’t believe Johnson, so she charged him with perjury, initiating an uproar among wrongful conviction activists. Nevertheless, Johnson pled guilty and was sentenced to four and half years, but only served a few months when Quinn inexplicably let him out.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of corruption among wrongful conviction law firms, the City of Chicago recently voted unanimously to grant “reparations” to inmates who claimed they were tortured at the hands of Jon Burge and his men as long as four decades ago. This legislation came at the hands of G. Flint Taylor, founding member of the People’s Law Office, the law firm that was aiding Weather Underground terrorists in the 1970s.
Despite clear evidence of illegal conduct while David Protess was a professor at Northwestern, current Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez refused to indict Protess, letting the statute of limitations expire before ever taking action in his cases. This refusal to indict Protess, even though the university itself admitted he lied about his cases, is a clear sign that prosecutors are afraid to go after criminal conduct in the wrongful conviction movement.
The wrongful conviction movement and its sycophant “journalists” may be able to weather the storm in the wake of Alstory Simon being declared innocent and the Porter case imploding. But they cannot weather the Hobley case.
Conroy, Mills, and Zorn are in a tight spot. If the three men continue to defend Hobley’s exoneration, they risk revealing even more their role in such a sick, twisted turn of events. If they finally acknowledge Hobley’s exoneration for the arson was false, like the Porter exoneration, they risk blowing the door wide open on their ties to the entire movement, spanning potentially dozens of cases.
The only choice now, a temporary fix, is silence.
For the cops and prosecutors who have been vilified by them, their silence is a step in the right direction. In it, one can sense a simmering fire in Chicago.
This fire has its own burn pattern, one tying seemingly disconnected events together, from an arson in 1987 to bombs set off in the 1970s.
Sometimes the burn patterns reveal fires so intense, so cruel, and so unjust one could mistake them as emerging right from some distant corner of hell.
But that would be mistake, for the origin of these fires is right here, in the heart of the Crooked City.
Martin Preib is an awarding-winning writer and Chicago Police Officer. His first book, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City, was published by the University of Chicago Press. His second book, Crooked City, chronicles his investigation into Chicago's wrongful conviction movement and played a pivotal role in the release of Alstory Simon from prison last year. Told in the gripping tension of a crime novel, Crooked City paints a dire picture of the movement to release convicted killers from prison. Preib is currently working on a third book about the Madison Hobley case and Jon Burge.