clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Did a group dedicated to exonerating inmates put an innocent man in jail?


A group that was dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted has been accused of framing an innocent man.

When you hear "Innocence Project, " you probably associate it with the many groups bearing that name that work tirelessly to rescue people from death row. Maybe you've heard tearjerker tales of cases in which attorneys have saved prisoners from execution by digging up DNA evidence proving they didn't actually commit the crimes that put them behind bars.

But the role that one group dedicated to fighting for innocence played in a recent case is much more complicated.

That's because 64-year-old Alstory Simon recently walked out of prison midway through a 27-year sentence for his role in a 1982 double murder in Chicago, after Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez concluded that the confession he made in 1999 was coerced.

Here's the catch: Alvarez determined that Simon had been manipulated and misled, not by law enforcement officials, but by investigators who were working for Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project to free Anthony Porter, the man who had originally been convicted in the murder.

Simon, Alvarez concluded, was in prison for a crime he didn't commit because of the unethical tactics of an organization dedicated to freeing people in that very situation.

Alvarez told the
Chicago Tribune, "[T] his case has been so deeply corroded and corrupted that we can no longer maintain the legitimacy of this conviction."

It's a happy ending for Simon,  who is now free. A film about his ordeal, "A Murder in the Park," premiered this week in New York.

It's a sad one for David Protess, the former Northwestern journalism professor who was at the helm of the operation that's accused of eliciting the false confession.

In a broader sense, though, it's not an ending at all.

It's the latest battle in a long war between those like Protess, who, in a normal case, argue
for innocence, and for those like Alvarez, who tend to make the case for guilt. In this saga, the typical role of all the players has been reversed — calling into question the motives of all involved.

That's why, even when the credits roll on A Murder in the Park, questions about the interests driving the plot of the story will still be unanswered and tensions surrounding ethics of how one  innocence organization did its job will remain.

The "innocence crowd" vs. the "guilt crowd"

Simon's case goes to the heart of the conflict between the two camps that the Chicago Reader's Michael Miner once dubbed the "innocence crowd" (the lawyers, investigators, and journalists who are sympathetic to the goal of exonerating the wrongfully convicted), and the "guilt crowd" (the prosecutors, police officers and most other members of the law enforcement community who work to put criminals behind bars and want to keep them there).

It's no surprise that the Medill Innocence Project —  a member of the innocence crowd — bumped heads before with Alvarez, a prosecutor who leads the charge for guilt in Chicago.

It was, after all, responsible for the kind of high profile exonerations that naturally caused tensions with prosecutors.

Protess, after launching the project in 1999, helped to exonerate 12 prisoners, including five who were on death row. The efforts on behalf of inmate Anthony Porter saved his life just days before his scheduled for lethal injection, in a story so powerful that it led to a statewide moratorium on the death penalty and inspired new innocence projects around the country.

Things were going pretty well (and Protess' star continued to rise) until, in 2006, Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions filed a petition with Alvarez to overturn the conviction of death row inmate Anthony McKinney.

Alvarez didn't simply deny it. Instead, she began what Ari Berman, who was one of the Medill students who worked on the case, later described in an essay for the Nation as a "smear campaign" against Protess. Alvarez subpoenaed all the student memos, notes, and records in the matter, primarily to determine whether they had been acting as advocates rather than journalists.  "The public focus became Alvarez versus Protess," wrote Berman.

As a result of the contentious investigation, Protess was suspended by and left Northwestern in 2011 over the ethical questions surrounding his students' work. The petition to overturn McKinney's petition wasn't granted, and he died in jail.

What made the Simon case complicated

An innocence organization elicits a confession. A prosecutor frees a man from jail.  Big-time, pro-law enforcement lawyers represent an unknown inmate. Nearly every character in this convoluted story is said to have played a role opposite of the one you'd expect.

The tactics of the Medill Innocence Project provide the starkest example of this.

Porter, after having been identified by several eyewitnesses, was sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of two teenagers  — Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green — at a Chicago park in 1982.

In 1999, Protess and his Medill Innocence Project team agreed to take a look at the case and, ultimately, to fight for Porter's innocence. But they knew that they'd have figure out who did commit the crime. Simon was their target.

According to Simon's lawyer, and the conclusion of the investigation that Alvarez launched in 1999, the tactics the Medill Innocence Project investigators used to get him to confess to the murder for which Porter was serving time were highly questionable, manipulative, and misleading, and led to him admitting to something he didn't do.

Here's how the Associated Press explained it:

" Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez [said Simon] was tricked by a private investigator who stormed into his home and showed him a videotape of a man who said he had seen Simon pull the trigger. The man turned out to be an actor ... Alvarez said the ‘tactics and antics' of the investigator, Paul Ciolino, and former Northwestern journalism professor David Protess could have added up to criminal charges of obstruction of justice and intimidation of a witness at the time but that it is now impossible to file charges because the statute of limitations has run out."

All of the people responsible for the questionable "tactics and antics" were connected to Medill. It's hard to imagine that an organization founded to seek justice for the wrongly imprisoned would go to such lengths to trick an innocent man into a confession that would put him behind bars.

But, according to the Cook County State's Attorney's office, that's what happened. After the now-infamous McKinney investigation, it was another huge blow to the group's reputation.

But Alvarez got her share of scrutiny, too. She wasn't in the habit of working to free the wrongfully convicted, so her abrupt change of tune in this case sparked questions about whether her "real interest [was] to intimidate, bully, and perhaps destroy Protess' operation."

She called those accusations "insulting," but, given her history with Protess, it's understandable that observers would look at her interest in the case with some suspicion.

Simon's attorneys didn't escape the magnifying glass, either. The Chicago Tribune reported that the two lawyers who took his case — James Sotos and Terry Elk — normally defend Chicago police officers in misconduct suits, meaning they're defense attorneys that are typically aligned with law enforcement officers in the  "guilt crowd."

Their efforts in this case to free a non-law enforcement convict raised suspicions about whether they took it on with the goal of striking a blow to the "innocence crowd." Protess, in a 2013 piece for the Huffington Post, called them "shills for law enforcement."

Protess went on to question the intentions of Anthony Hale, who helped to fund the documentary about Simon's experience. Protess called him  "the go-to guy when Chicago's Law Department needs an outside lawyer to fight civil rights suits" — not typically an advocate for the average wrongly convicted civilian.

In this bizarre case, there's plenty of speculation about the motivations of all of the people involved.

But top among the questions surrounding Simon's exoneration is this: did Protess and the Medill Innocence Project actually think Simon committed the murder for which Porter was imprisoned, or did they — without any regard for actual justice —  intentionally frame him and manipulate him into a false confession to get Porter off of death row?

The ethics of proving innocence

Much has been written about  the ethical questions surrounding the conduct of the Protess and the journalism students who worked with him at the Medill Innocence Project. Did they cross the line from being journalists to being advocates for the inmates whose cases they took on? Where is the line, anyway? Despite Alvarez' legal conclusion, these questions are far from settled as a matter of public opinion. (The warring narratives about what really happened, and why, are explored at length in 2011 Chicago Magazine feature.)

But there's also a larger source of tension in this case: if you want to convince a prosecutor to exonerate an inmate who you say is innocent, it helps a lot if you can point to the person who actually committed the crime. (You might have heard  Deirdre Enright of the University of Virginia's Innocence Project acknowledge as much in an interview featured in the popular Serial podcast —  a journalistic investigation into the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student.)

In some cases, innocence organizations can use DNA evidence to do this. That wasn't available in Porter's case. But Protess' choice to seek a confession from Simon instead is curious. The Innocence Project (a national organization that is one of many dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted,  but had no involvement with the work of the Medill Innocence Project) notes  on its website that many of the inmates it represents have ended up behind bars as a result of coerced statements.

In that way, this case revealed inherent conflicts in the work of the "innocence crowd": When targeting an alternate suspect in an effort to free the inmate you're representing, how sure do you need to be about their guilt? Even if you're sure, how far is too far when it comes to seeking a confession? And is justice for one person ever worth the slightest chance of injustice for someone else?

What happens now?

Will Simon's exoneration and the public criticism of the Innocence Project's work lead the organization to examine these ethical questions?

In Protess' case, probably not. The professor, who picked up wrongful conviction work as the head of the Chicago Innocence Project when he was suspended and then retired from his Northwestern post, in 2011, insisted as recently as 2013 that Simon should take the full blame for his conviction, writing at the Huffington Post, "Besides the overwhelming proof of Simon's guilt — the videotaped confession, his guilty plea to a judge, a tearful courtroom apology for the slayings, damning admissions to a Milwaukee TV reporter — it was Simon's failure to appeal that forever closed his case."

However, things have changed at Northwestern. The Medill Innocence Project was re-launched under a different name — the Medill Justice Project — with new, "strict guidelines governing ethical standards."

"The goal is to restore trust in the class and the project and rebuild it so that it becomes again a point of pride for students, faculty, alumni, Medill and Northwestern," Alec Klein, who took over Protess' role, told the Daily Northwestern in 2011. "It's a crown jewel for Northwestern, and we need to fix it."

And what about Porter, the man the Medill Innocence Project freed with Simon's confession? Does the story of Simon's false confession mean the original suspect really did commit the murder after all? That's unclear, but constitutional protections against double jeopardy mean he can never be tried again.

That makes the identity of the person responsible for that Chicago "murder in the park" just one of many questions raised by this case that may never be fully answered.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece indicated that the murder Simon and Porter were accused of happened in 1992. It happened in 1982. Also, it was suggested that the Medill Innocence Project was a branch of the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is in fact a separate, New York-based, national organization that had no authority over the work of the Medill Innocence Project. The Innocence Project issued a statement, reproduced in part here:

Several recent news reports have conflated David Protess' work as the leader of the Northwestern University's journalism clinic, formerly titled the Medill Innocence Project, with that of the Innocence Project, a New York-based litigation and policy organization.  The Innocence Project had no involvement whatsoever in  Protess' investigation of the conviction of Anthony Porter, who the Cook County State's Attorney's office, through its own independent investigation, eventually determined was innocent of the August 1982 murder of a couple at a public pool on Chicago's South Side.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.