Is One of the Most Famous Exonerations in U.S. History About to Fall Apart?

One of the guidelines of liberal propaganda is that if you are going to lie, lie big.  Global warming, Obamacare, Romney’s a heartless guy.  It might be time to add to the list the famous Anthony Porter exoneration in Chicago in 1999.

Not only is Porter likely guilty of the double murder he was initially charged with, an innocent man therefore sits in an east central Illinois prison serving a 37-year sentence.  His probable framing was largely orchestrated by a since-discredited “journalism” professor and his students at Northwestern University, a cowed prosecutor’s office in Cook County, and a Chicago media that enabled the whole charade.

The curtain is finally about to be lifted on this sorry chapter in justice, Illinois style.  A different Cook County State’s Attorney’s office is giving the case a fresh review that looks to be more than a whitewash.  An independent film company partially funded by a prominent Chicago attorney is about to release a chilling documentary on the case, and the Chicago media is finally breaking its nearly decade-long stonewalling of its massive mistake.

In the halls of the “Innocence Industry,” an amalgam of defense attorneys, media advocates and universities, the Porter exoneration is iconic.  Porter was two days away from execution for the murders of teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green on a steamy evening in Chicago in August 1982 before the courts granted him a stay in late 1998 to hear mental fitness issues.  Several days later, in a series of stunning “revelations,” Northwestern University Journalism Professor David Protess, his students and flamboyant made-for-TV private investigator Paul Ciolino found a witness against Porter who changed his story, two other witnesses who fingered another man, and, the coup de grace, a taped confession from that man, Alstory Simon.

The anti-death penalty Chicago media went wild, running the story around the clock and particularly CBS, which was being fed the exclusives by Protess and company.  At that precise time, the Chicago Tribune was on a jihad against prosecutors, publishing a scathing nine-part anti-prosecutor series Trial & Error that darkly started with a first chapter, Verdict: Dishonor.  The series started three weeks before the Simon revelations and had elected prosecutors wondering who would be next in newspaper crosshairs.  Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine, a Democrat, took the extraordinary step of releasing Porter a few days after the Northwestern-inspired revelations without fully checking all the facts.  The word in the office at the time, unconfirmed, was that Devine, a protégé of then Chicago Mayor Richard M.  Daley, himself the former State’s Attorney, told Devine “not to jump in front of the media train about to run him over.”

Simon ultimately plead guilty to the double murder and Protess and the Innocence Industry reveled in its biggest scalp yet -- one that directly led to the nationally prominent death penalty moratorium imposed by then Illinois Governor George Ryan in January 2000.  "How do you prevent another Anthony Porter -- another innocent man or woman from paying the ultimate penalty for a crime he or she did not commit?" Governor Ryan said at the time.  Well-informed skeptics at the time noted Ryan was making the popular media play to divert attention from his growing corruption scandal that would eventually land him in prison, but the media preferred not to sully the exoneration narrative.

A video clip of the African-American Porter jumping into the arms of white liberal professor Protess was aired endlessly on Chicago TV stations.  The Tribune would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials about prosecutorial misconduct and the case was important enough that U.S.  Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was grilled about it by U.S.  Sen.  Patrick Leahy (D-VT) at Roberts’ confirmation hearing in 2005.

Those who paid attention to facts, however, noted the story book exoneration appeared to be a fairy tale.  The first public clue came in 2005, when Porter incredibly lost his $24 million civil lawsuit to recover damages for his “wrongful” prosecution, conviction and incarceration.  In the extremely favorable venue of Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, after months of favorable press coverage, Porter nonetheless lost because the defense lawyers were able to show that Porter probably committed the murders.  It came to light that Northwestern’s alleged witness reversal was overstated and that handfuls of people saw Porter in the vicinity of the crime, several saw him holding a gun, and two saw him fire the fatal shots.  Those facts were ignored in the media frenzy at the time of Porter’s release.

As Simon’s lawyers dug into the case, a more sinister side of the story emerged.  In a carefully detailed letter to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office asking for a rehearing of the case, Simon’s lawyers are claiming that Protess and private investigator Ciolino illegally coerced the confession from Simon, using a series of questionable tactics and promising him a short “self-defense” sentence and eventual riches from book and movie deals.  The alleged confession was also tainted by Ciolino supplying Simon a lawyer friendly to him and Protess.  Incredibly, the lawyer pled his client despite the strong evidence against Porter, and, in the midst of pending proceedings, gave an award to Ciolino and Protess for uncovering “evidence” against his clients.  (Protess and Ciolino deny they did anything improper in the Porter case).

Buttressing the notion that Simon’s confession was phony were recantations from the two witnesses Northwestern dug up against Simon.  Both said they were promised money or favors for their fake testimony, according to Simon’s court filings.  In addition, Simon told several people at the time of his confession that it was coerced and not true.

No evidence remains that Simon committed the murders.  Nobody saw him at the crime scene near the time of the murders.  No physical evidence exists.  All that remains is his “confession.” Meanwhile, eight solid witnesses finger Porter at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder.  Two saw him do the shooting.  In addition, a top prosecutor in the Cook County office has signed an affidavit attesting that he was dubious about the Porter exoneration and said so within the office at the time. 

The fairy tale continued to fall apart in 2011 when Professor Protess left Northwestern soon after the university placed him on leave and issued a scalding public rebuke accusing him of lying to the university and court in another murder case.  His methods have come under fire in other famous exonerations, including one in downstate Paris, IL where he and his students were able to convince CBS to do three factually dubious national broadcasts in another double murder that also led to exonerations.

Tribune liberal columnist Eric Zorn, a frequent champion of the Innocence Industry, apparently sees the handwriting on the wall.  In an extraordinary pre-admission, Zorn wrote in September 2013 that he and his brethren in the press might have been wrong about the Porter case.  The Tribune a month later wrote an equally unusual editorial asking that light be shone on the previously-thought-to-be closed case.

These media self-criticisms are less noble than it appears.  They came after eight years of purposely ignoring the monumental story.  I first noted something fishy about the Porter case in 2006 on a blog and was met with stony silence.  Several years later, retired Pulitzer Prize winning Chicago Tribune reporter William Crawford wrote a detailed analysis of the case and pitched it to former colleagues at various media outlets.  He was ignored and even mocked.  But he appears to have been right.

A quirky Chicago cop named Martin Preib has picked up the crusade.  Preib, a self-described mediocre lawman, happens to be a gifted writer on the side.  His second book, Crooked City, traces his astonishment about the Porter case and others, once he dug into the facts.  He brilliantly tells the story about the fraudulent exoneration via his personal odyssey to uncover the truth and through the story of one of the original investigators who was outraged that Porter was released.

All that is left is the State’s Attorney to do the right thing and release Simon and prosecute anyone who acted illegally in framing him, Northwestern to examine other cases handled by Protess, and the media to explain its complicity in the fraud.

For conservatives, the lessons have already been learned over the years: There are no liberal narratives too big to fail.

Dan Curry is a former newspaper investigative reporter, spokesman for the Illinois Attorney General and a U.S.  Senator, and a principal in the public affairs/political consulting firm, Reverse Spin, LLC.  He has been following the Anthony Porter case for nearly a decade.

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