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Storm Clouds Gather Over Wrongful Conviction Narrative

Chicago Media Silent As Key Case Implodes...

A federal magistrate ruled Tuesday that depositions can begin in a lawsuit that claims a key wrongful conviction case that ended the death penalty in Illinois is a fraud.

Saying that the case puts the “entire society” on trial, Magistrate Judge M. David Weisman ruled that depositions can begin from potentially dozens of witnesses, including former students from Northwestern University’s Innocence Project at the Medill School of Journalism, who worked on the landmark exoneration of Anthony Porter in 1999 under the tutelage of former Professor David Protess.

Porter was released from prison in 1999 after another man, Alstory Simon, confessed to the 1982 double murders in Washington Park. But soon after Simon confessed, he claimed he had been hoodwinked into confessing by Protess and a private investigator working with him, Paul Ciolino.

Amidst the allegations of wrongdoing at Northwestern, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez reviewed the case in 2014. She assailed the conduct of Protess and Ciolino and released Simon from prison.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez Announcing the Release of Alstory Simon From Prison

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez Announcing the Release of Alstory Simon From Prison

After his release, Simon’s attorneys sued. The fifty-page lawsuit alleges that the three defendants—the University, Protess and Paul Ciolino, extracted an illegal confession from Simon and engaged in other sleights of hand, false promises and physical threats to get him to plead guilty in 1999 to the 1982 double homicide that was committed by Porter.

The announcement that Simon’s attorneys may depose the students could be a public relations nightmare for Northwestern. 

One student who worked on the Porter exoneration was Shawn Armbrust, now the Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Maryland and one-time adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. Another was Thomas A. McCann, an attorney with Levin, Schreder & Carey Ltd. in Chicago.

In the hearing Tuesday, defense attorneys argued that Simon’s guilt or innocence was not relevant in the trial. Judge Weisman rejected the argument, saying his culpability was relevant for many reasons, not the least of which were potential damages should Simon prevail.

Defense attorneys also argued that the case should be limited only to the events surrounding Porter’s exoneration and Simon’s conviction in 1998-1999, but Weisman rejected this argument as well.

From statements at the hearing Tuesday, one defense strategy became clear. All three defense attorneys argued forcefully and in detail that the decision to indict Simon was the Cook County Prosecutor’s at the time, Dick Devine. The defendants, they claimed, merely brought forth exculpatory evidence.

But an attorney for Simon shot the argument down, saying the evidence brought by Protess and Simon was manufactured.

Simon’s lawsuit may also be a “can of worms” for the entire wrongful conviction movement. The reason is that the case became the basis for a host of other exonerations, ones that also may not survive renewed scrutiny. Almost all these exonerations were based on claims of police misconduct. In their theory about the case, Simon’s attorneys allege a pattern of misconduct by Protess and Ciolio extending back decades and covering several wrongful conviction claims. Indeed, Protess left Northwestern in 2011 in scandal involving another wrongful conviction case, one in which the university admitted he had lied about his cases.

The trial could also pose a dilemma for the Chicago media, particularly the Chicago Tribune, which wrote steadily in support of the Porter exoneration. Simon’s attorneys allege that media pressure played a key role in overwhelming the justice system in this case and others.

One component of the media coverage of wrongful conviction cases is the claim that there is a “blue code of silence” among the police to cover up misconduct.

But despite the magnitude of the Simon lawsuit and the claim by Judge Weisman that the “entire society” is on trial in the case, not one media outlet covered the pivotal hearing Tuesday.

According to Weisman, Porter will be the first to be deposed. That deposition can take place after thirty days, he ruled.