When Ethical Causes Are Pursued By Unethical Means: The Anthony Porter-Alstory Simon Mess

What does this picture have in common with the Alstory Simon case and the Illinois criminal justice system? Read on...

What does this picture have in common with the Alstory Simon case and the Illinois criminal justice system? Read on…

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.

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “When Ethical Causes Are Pursued By Unethical Means: The Anthony Porter-Alstory Simon Mess

  1. So now all innocence project investigations will be suspect and it will be even harder to prove truly innocent convicted prisoners are innocent. What a victory for justice.

  2. 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.

    If so, then he was not competent to stand trial in the first place.

  3. Simon. Protess. Ciolino. the actor witness. the jailed relatives. Medill organization staff or members? Rimland? Anyone else involved anywhere along the convoluted way to carrying out this scam? And not a single one of them could ever possibly have so much as hinted to anyone else — spouse, best bar buddy, stranger on a train, in the dentist’s chair — that there was something … uh … wrong? That, for instance, if someone agreed to exchange, or certainly risk exchanging, liberty for life in prison by falsely confessing to double murder on a promise of a book-and-movie deal (this year’s equivalent of 15 minutes of fame) … and was going to, inevitably, figure out that he wasn’t going to get it, he wouldn’t be inclined to sell the story himself? Or that any time in between two minutes from now and the next fifty years this was all going to come vomiting out all over any one of them?

    I don’t believe it. This was not a matter of faulty ethics; there has to be sufficient intelligence to comprehend the concept of ethics in the first place. Once upon a time there was a measurement that I will resurrect here, meaningless as it may be under other circumstances: the term “Moron” referred to an IQ of 51–70, the next level down was “Imbecile” (26–50), outranking the lowest level of “Idiot” (0–25).

    This was terminal idiocy. And idiots are, together and severally, dangers to society.

  4. Jack,
    Great article, but some slight confusion: If the witnesses who implicated Simon began recanting their stories as early as 2005, why was Porter still released in 2011?

  5. honestly even if porter is guilty there are still other arguments. Rolando Cruz the fords height four (who actually do hold up despite protess’s involvement seeing as the state conducted the tests and actually dug up the corpse of the ringleader just to be safe.) are enough proof to doubt the death penalty

  6. I just finished watching A Murder In The Park and am astonished at the level of blatant corruption by this “Innocence project” and Northwestern professor and his students. It made me physically ill to learn the facts of the wrongful conviction of Alstory Simon, largely based on advice from his own corrupt attorney. Anthony Porter should be in prison for the remainder of his life and he would be there today if the media in this country had had even a shred of integrity back in 1999. This case brings into the light media bias and lack of journalistic integrity….specifically the old media, cable and print news. The fact is that many people involved in today’s media are still guilty of many of the same offenses that lead to an innocent man being convicted and a guilty man being pardoned…corruption, distortion, misrepresentation and outright deceit….and what have they learned from these mistakes?! The lapdog media is complicit in crimes against our nation and our liberty is at stake.
    Every Journalism professor and student should watch this documentary and force themselves to dissect the fact that their only agenda should be to reveal the factual truth complete with reliable evidence. What Protess, his team of henchmen, and his group of students from Northwestern has done, will now undermine everything that all of these groups claim to stand for and that is innocence. Their claims to be advocates for the innocent will be tainted indefinitely, which I’m certain was not their goal.
    Thank God for “new” news sources, from radio, sirius/xm and cable to the internet. If not for these sources we would, once again, be a nation of sheep, blindly, foolishly, believing anything the fascist, state-sponsored/endorsed media spews.

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