Alstory Simon wept for joy when he walked out of a downstate prison Thursday after spending 15 years behind bars for a 1982 double murder — a case that was key to bringing an end to the death penalty in Illinois.
In a stunning reversal, a Cook County judge ordered the release of Simon.
Simon, 64, pleaded guilty to the killings in 1999 after another man, Anthony Porter, was convicted but later released. Porter came within hours of being executed and his release became a driving force in former Gov. George Ryan’s decision to declare a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.
At a court hearing Thursday, prosecutors asked a judge to drop the charges against Simon. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez explained: “Justice compels that I take action.”
Then-Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess had led the original investigation that resulted in Porter’s release from Death Row.
Last year, Alvarez launched a re-investigation of the case, determined that Protess and his students used “alarming tactics,” and said she was “troubled” by Simon’s legal representation before he pleaded guilty.
She noted that there are witnesses who continue to maintain that Porter was the real killer.
Back in 1999, though, Cook County prosecutors offered a different story, assuring the public that justice was served when Porter was freed.
Now that Simon’s 37-year sentence has been vacated, he plans to reunite with his family.
“My first reaction was, ‘I thank God it’s finally going to happen,’” Simon said.
He hopes to see his daughter, grandson and sister on Friday.
“I’ve never seen him, and I haven’t seen my daughter for a long, long time,” Simon said.
Simon was picked up from Jacksonville Correctional Center, by Shawn Rech, a filmmaker who produced a movie about Simon’s case, called “A Murder in the Park.”
They stopped at a Popeyes and ate chicken and shrimp, with a more elaborate meal to come, Rech said.
Terry Ekl, who represented Simon alongside attorney James Sotos, thanked Alvarez for her willingness to re-examine case.
“I always sensed they were trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Simon was scheduled for parole in August 2017.
After he was freed, he “was just elated on the phone, laughing,” Ekl said of their conversation. “I’ve never heard him like that.”
Simon is staying at an extended stay hotel in Chicago for the “foreseeable future,” Ekl said.
“We will help him with the transition. He is a 64-year-old man. He doesn’t have a driver’s license, money, a car, a job, or anyone close to him.”
As for Porter, under the constitution’s double jeopardy clause, he can’t be tried again for the murders.
In April, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on a 2001 memo that suggested politics figured into then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine’s decision to drop the murder case against Porter and charge Simon in 1999.
“A political decision was made that this case be put to rest because it caused too much publicity against the imposition of the Death Penalty,” stated a memo by attorneys defending the city of Chicago against a wrongful conviction lawsuit by Porter. Devine denies his decision was political.
A Cook County jury later found in favor of the city in the lawsuit.
The 2001 memo pointed out the evidence against Simon, including his confession and his wife’s statement implicating him.
But the memo also noted that Simon insisted the confession was coerced and that his wife recanted on her deathbed. And it stressed that other evidence presented to a grand jury — which was impaneled after Porter was freed — continued to implicate Porter in the murders.
One witness, Kenneth Edwards, told the grand jury in 1999 that he saw Porter pull the trigger and kill Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green in the bleachers near a pool in the South Side’s Washington Park. Other witnesses also put Porter at the scene of the crime.
Paul Ciolino, a private investigator who worked with Protess and his students, told a grand jury in 1999 that he obtained Simon’s confession through deception.
Ciolino said he showed Simon a video of an actor who claimed he knew Simon committed the murders. Simon was then videotaped, “confessing” that he committed the killings in self-defense after he thought he saw one of the victims, Jerry Hillard, pull a gun on him at the pool.
In a statement Thursday, Ciolino stood by his work.
“Mr. Simon confessed to a Milwaukee TV reporter, his own lawyer and others since he confessed to me. You explain that.”
Ekl responded: “There was a time when all of us thought people did not confess to things they did not do.
“We now know that’s not true.”
Protess did not return phone messages.