All Americans owe a debt to the many non-profit organizations across the country dedicated to freeing innocent prisoners, some of them sentenced to die, who were wrongly prosecuted and convicted as a result of breakdowns in the justice system or prosecutorial corruption. Their work has served as an invaluable fail-safe, it has focused attention on needed reforms, and it has rescued innocent lives before they were completely destroyed. As a reminder of the corruptive power of good intentions, however, the recent release of a convicted murderer put in prison by one of these organizations serves as an ethics cautionary tale. Apparently one such “innocence project” believed that it was worth sending an innocent man to prison for a murder he did not commit in order to save the man originally convicted of the crime from execution.
In 1998,* Illinois death row inmate Anthony Porter, convicted in the 1982 murders of Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard, was apparently proven innocent 48 hours before his scheduled execution. A Northwestern University professor and his students working with the Medill Innocence Project had obtained a videotaped confession by a man named Alstory Simon, admitting that he, not Porter, was the real killer. Porter was ultimately released, in 1999.
The governor of Illinois at the time, George Ryan, a longtime supporter of the death penalty, claimed that he was so shocked by the near fatal miscarriage of justice that he halted all executions less than a year after Porter’s exoneration. Eventually he commuted the sentences of every prisoner on death row, saying the state’s capital punishment system could not be trusted. The Simon confession leading to Porter’s exoneration drove the shift in public opinion that caused the Illinois death penalty’s demise in 2011.
Happy ending? Not exactly. In 2005, witnesses who implicated Simon announced that they had fabricated their stories in exchange for money and a promise by the Northwestern professor, David Protess, that he would work to free two incarcerated relatives of one of the witnesses. Then Alstory Simon recanted his confession, saying that he had been persuaded by a faked videotape of witnesses implicating him in the crime, and promises of a short prison sentence and a movie deal if he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. Last week, an Illinois judge ordered Simon released from prison after prosecutors agreed that he was probably not guilty. He had spent almost 15 years in prison.
At a news conference following the release, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez accepted Simon’s claim that he agreed to plead guilty to a double murder because he had been promised money from a book or movie deal, even though there has been no solid corroboration that an such an offer had been made. She also impugned the integrity of Protess and criticized the private investigator, Paul Ciolino, who obtained Simon’s videotaped confession. The videotape Ciolino had shown to Simon used an actor to portray the accusing witness. She also expressed concerns about the independence of Simon’s attorney, Jack Rimland, who had agreed to represent him at the urging of Ciolino, the man who was dedicated to getting him to confess.
Yes, I’d say there was a little hint of a conflict of interest there.
“The bottom line is the investigation conducted by Protess and private investigator Ciolino as well as the subsequent legal representation of Mr. Simon were so flawed that it’s clear the constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected as our law requires,” said Alvarez. She also said she would have considered bringing obstruction of justice or witness intimidation charges against Protess and Ciolino if the statute of limitations hadn’t run out.
So who did kill Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard? After all the investigations and examining the evidence, prosecutors are pretty certain it was the man who was waiting to be executed for the murders in the first place: Anthony Porter. Yes, a likely murderer is roaming free, and he can never be arrested or tried for those crimes, because of double jeopardy. This does not mean that Porter should have been executed, or that he had a fair trial. His lawyer fell asleep during the proceedings, and didn’t meet with him until shortly before trial began. Porter’s IQ tests showed him to be well below the level the Supreme Court subsequently ruled indicated sufficient awareness for an execution not to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Let’s survey the ethics carnage, shall we?
1. Porter was deprived of a fair trial by an unethical and incompetent lawyer.
2. Despite that, the system failed him by allowing his death sentence to stand.
3.Witnesses and Simon lied in a corrupt bargain to free Porter.
4. The Medill Innocence Project, including Professor Protess and investigator Ciolino, used threats, bribes, intimidation, fabricated evidence and suborned perjury to “prove” the innocence of a guilty man.
5. The false representation that Porter was nearly executed for a crime he didn’t commit prompted Governor Ryan to commute sentences of other death row inmates who were unquestionably convicted justly of murders they did commit beyond a reasonable doubt.
Protess, whose dubious methods have come under fire before, undoubtedly believes that this was all justified to save a mentally handicapped man from execution. What are 15 years of an innocent man’s life, compared to another man, even a guilty one, losing that life? Indeed, his dishonest, coercive, illegal methods paid off by eliminating the death penalty entirely, saving untold numbers of lives. He doesn’t care that a murderer is free. He doesn’t care that his manipulations have made the justice system in Illinois look like comedy skit. He may not even care that this fiasco permanently mars the reputations and credibility of other projects dedicated to reversing mistaken and unjust convictions. For zealots like him, the ends justify the means, when he has determined that a goal is sufficiently important.
* CORRECTION ALERT! For some reason, this date was originally printed as 2011. I regret the error. Thanks to diligent reader Neil Dorr for flagging my mistake.