About 15 years ago, Northwestern University journalism students and their professor gained international attention for their efforts to overturn Death Row inmate Anthony Porter’s conviction in a double murder.
But on Tuesday, the school and David Protess, the former professor instrumental in Porter’s release, were accused in a lawsuit of helping railroad another man, Alstory Simon, for those same killings.
After Porter was freed, Simon spent about 15 years behind bars for the 1982 double murder of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green. He, too, was freed when a court reversed his conviction in October at the request of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. She said the Northwestern students used “alarming tactics” and she was “troubled” by Simon’s legal representation at the time of his sentencing.
On Tuesday, Simon’s’ attorneys Terry Ekl and James Sotos sued Northwestern University and Protess in U.S. District Court in Chicago. The wrongful prosecution lawsuit also named Jack Rimland, who was Simon’s defense attorney in 1999, and Paul Ciolino, a private investigator.
The lawsuit called the 64-year-old Simon’s longtime incarceration a “horrific injustice.” It seeks a total of $40 million in compensatory damages.
Simon’s lawsuit accuses Protess, Ciolino and Rimland of engaging in a conspiracy to frame Simon for the double murder.
Northwestern failed to remove Protess even though several deans of the Medill School of Journalism were aware of his alleged misconduct, the lawsuit said. “Northwestern’s conduct permitted a culture of lawlessness to thrive in Protess’ investigative journalism classes and investigations,” according to the complaint.
Protess retired from Northwestern in 2011.
Ciolino called the lawsuit frivolous and “a legalized version of a hold up for a big payday.”
“Northwestern University, Dave Protess and I saved [Porter] from an unjust conviction and execution that would have never passed muster today. Last I checked, none of us had the ability to charge a suspect, plea bargain, take a case to trial or convict an inmate,” he said in a prepared statement.
Northwestern University released a statement saying the Evanston-based school denies wrongdoing and “looks forward to being vindicated in a court of law.”
Protess and Rimland could not be reached for comment, but in the past have defended their actions.
Simon’s complex legal saga began in 1998 when Protess was teaching an investigative journalism class in which students researched alleged wrongful convictions. They visited the scene where Porter allegedly killed Hillard and Green in bleachers outside a South Side pool and concluded Porter could not have killed the couple. Their attention then turned to Simon, who was living in Milwaukee.
“Protess instructed his students to investigate Porter’s case and develop evidence of Porter’s innocence, rather than to search for the truth,” the lawsuit said, accusing Protess and Ciolino of coercing a confession from Simon.
Ciolino, accompanied by a Northwestern student, traveled to Milwaukee to interview Simon. According to court records, Ciolino later acknowledged to a grand jury that he had obtained Simon’s videotaped confession through deception when he showed him a video of an actor who claimed he knew Simon committed the murders. On the confession tape, Simon said he committed the killings in self-defense. He said he thought he saw Hillard pull a gun on him at the pool. Ciolino told a grand jury that after Simon confessed, he contacted Rimland to represent Simon as his defense attorney. Simon decided to plead guilty.
At his sentencing hearing, Rimland and the prosecutor did not tell the judge about any of the evidence a February 1999 grand jury heard that continued to implicate Porter in the murders. That evidence included a statement from Kenneth Edwards, who said he saw Porter pull the trigger and kill the couple. But that February 1999 grand jury was disbanded without being asked to return an indictment against Simon.
A month later, another grand jury heard only the “false evidence” obtained by the Northwestern team before indicting Simon, the lawsuit said.
Porter’s release was a key factor in then-Gov. George Ryan’s decision to declare a moratorium on the death penalty, which has since been abolished in Illinois.
Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times unveiled an allegation that political pressure may have prompted then-State’s Attorney Richard Devine to release Porter — and quickly charge Simon.
Attorneys representing the city included that allegation in a 2001 memo to then-Corporation Counsel Mara Georges. They urged her to fight a wrongful prosecution lawsuit that Porter had brought against the city. The city eventually prevailed in the lawsuit. According to their four-page memo, the city attorneys wrote: “A political decision was made that this case should be put to rest because it caused too much publicity against the imposition of the death penalty, caused great doubt about the validity of death penalty punishment for mentally challenged individuals and incited a significant amount of negative press concerning Death Row reversals.”
The Sun-Times also reported last year that Thomas Epach — Cook County’s chief of criminal prosecutions in 1999 — raised questions to Devine about Porter’s release and Simon’s prosecution. In 2013, Epach gave an affidavit to Simon’s attorneys saying Devine didn’t heed his advice to investigate the case more thoroughly before charging Simon.
“In my years of experience as a prosecutor, it is my opinion that it was highly unusual, if not unprecedented, to make a decision to release an individual convicted of murder based upon the broadcast of a video, the reliability and authenticity of which had not been thoroughly investigated and established,” wrote Epach, who is now retired.
Devine has told the Sun-Times that he didn’t recall Epach expressing any doubts about the decision to charge Simon in 1999. He also has said there was never a “substantive claim” that Simon was innocent before he was sentenced for the murders.