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‘A Murder in the Park’ explores whether innocent man took Death Row inmate’s place in prison

Alstory Simon was the perfect fall guy, according to a new film that documents his strange and disturbing journey through the Illinois legal system.

Simon was living in a ratty apartment in Milwaukee in 1999 — addled by booze and drugs — when a private eye working with a team of Northwestern University journalism students tricked him into confessing to the 1982 murders of a young couple in Washington Park.

Based on his confession, Simon was locked up in prison and the man originally convicted of the crime — Death Row inmate Anthony Porter — went free. It was one of the seminal events leading to Illinois’ abolition of capital punishment.

In October, though, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez decided to release Simon, citing the “alarming” coercive techniques that were used to elicit his confession 15 years earlier. In a dramatic news conference, she called the investigation of Simon “deeply corroded and corrupted.”

“A Murder in the Park,” a 131-minute film opening at 8 p.m. Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, puts the Northwestern University journalism students and their professor, David Protess, on trial.

The film argues that Northwestern — and later, Cook County prosecutors — conducted incomplete investigations that framed Simon, on purpose.

Anthony Porter
Anthony Porter

The directors, Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber, use TV news clips of the students and Protess — along with their statements to a grand jury — to support an allegation that the Northwestern team was less interested in whether Porter was innocent than in finding someone else to blame for the murders.

But what’s new, and even stunning, is the film’s revelation that a top prosecutor working for then-Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine had convened two grand juries in 1999 to investigate whether Porter or Simon had committed the crimes.

Devine decided to reinvestigate the Porter case after Simon’s confession was broadcast on TV news.

The first grand jury heard compelling testimony from witnesses who said they saw Porter kill the couple in the stands near the Washington Park pool. But that jury, which had aggressively questioned the Northwestern students and their professor about the quality of their investigation, was not asked to return an indictment against Simon, court records show.

Then, a second grand jury was empaneled, but prosecutors didn’t present the jurors with any of the damning testimony against Porter — only evidence implicating Simon in the murders — and that grand jury indicted Simon, the film reveals.

Prosecutors “made a political decision to move forward with the prosecution of Alstory Simon,” one of his attorneys, James Sotos, alleges in the film.

At Simon’s sentencing, prosecutors never mentioned the evidence that had been presented to the grand jury implicating Porter in the killings, court records show.

Simon was sentenced to 37 years in prison for the double murder.

Asked about the second grand jury earlier this year, Devine told the Chicago Tribune that he was not among the prosecutors who worked with the grand jury and “cannot comment on specifics about the process.”

Previously, Devine defended Simon’s prosecution, telling the Chicago Sun-Times last year that there was no “substantive claim” that Simon was innocent at the time of his sentencing and adding, “I can’t go into the mind of a person who pleads guilty.”

Protess has denied any wrongdoing in Northwestern University’s investigation of the 1982 double murder.

Thomas Gainer Jr., the prosecutor who had handled the grand juries, has declined to comment about it. He’s now a Cook County judge.

The film will leave audiences pondering this powerful question: Was Alstory Simon railroaded?

And, if he was, were the Northwestern University team led by Protess — and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office under Devine — both to blame?