The Watch

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Question For Kimberly Foxx: Who Set The Fire?


One essential question is rising to the forefront of Chicago’s criminal justice system: Who set the fire on the south side of Chicago in 1987 that killed seven people?

This question becomes particularly crucial as the administration of newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx takes shape.

 Here is why.

The man originally convicted of setting the fire, Madison Hobley, was ultimately released from death row in 2003 by Governor George Ryan. Ryan pardoned three other convicted killers at the same time, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange, and Aaron Patterson.

Hobley’s pardon means that this mass murder case remains unsolved. But despite the magnitude of the crime, there is an eerie silence about this unsolved case. No one seems to want to reopen it.

The 2003 exoneration of Hobley and the three other convicted killers set a precedent. It was the first time, according to the New York Times, that a governor had pardoned someone with no new evidence of innocence presented in a legal proceeding.

January 11, 2003 New York Times:

“Mr. Hobley, who was convicted of killing his wife, infant child and five others in a 1987 arson, walked out of Pontiac Correctional Center this afternoon, one of four death row inmates that Governor Ryan pardoned three days before the end of his term. Experts said it was the first time in memory that condemned men had been directly pardoned, as opposed to being released through a court proceeding, an extraordinary step Governor Ryan took because, he said, he is convinced of their innocence…”

The decision, celebrated by the wrongful conviction advocates in Chicago, was assailed by prosecutors and the family members of victims.

The New York Times again:

Richard A. Devine, the Cook County state's attorney, issued a statement this afternoon calling the pardons ''outrageous and unconscionable.''

''These cases against these men are still before our courts, and it is the courts that should decide the issues in these cases,'' Mr. Devine said, referring to pending appeals. ''By his actions today the governor has breached faith with the memory of the dead victims, their families and the people he was elected to serve.''

Devine’s outrage is not without basis. Here is another passage from the New York Times article:

Governor Ryan's action today is also different because Mr. Hobley and the others -- Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange and Aaron Patterson – have been unable to convince judges or prosecutors that they were wrongly convicted.

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There’s more to it.

At the time Hobley was pardoned, Governor Ryan was facing his own 21-count criminal indictment. He would eventually be found guilty on all counts and sent to prison.

The exoneration of Hobley and the three other convicted killers set a precedent for another reason. It marked a high point in the influence of the wrongful conviction movement over the political and legal institutions within the state, an influence that is important to recount in order to understand the current state of affairs in Chicago.

When Ryan pardoned Hobley, he cited a wrongful conviction case that took place four years earlier through the efforts of “investigators” at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Professor David Protess, his private investigator, Paul Ciolino, and several students had worked to exonerate Anthony Porter for a 1982 double murder.

To do so, Protess and Ciolino had secured a confession from another man, Alstory Simon.

With this confession, Porter was set free.

Porter’s exoneration, Ryan later said, played a key role in his decision to pardon Hobley and the other convicted killers. Here’s what Ryan said in a speech announcing the release of the convicted killers:

I never intended to be an activist on this issue. I watched in surprise as freed death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail. A free man, he ran into the arms of Northwestern University Professor Dave Protess who poured his heart and soul into proving Porter's innocence with his journalism students. He was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him. It would all be so antiseptic and most of us would not have even paused, except that Anthony Porter was innocent of the double murder for which he had been condemned to die.

 From the Chicago Tribune:

Shaken by the sight of Porter coming within 48 hours of execution, then-Gov. George Ryan, a longtime supporter of the death penalty, halted executions less than a year after Porter's exoneration. Later, Ryan emptied death row, saying the state's capital punishment system simply could not be trusted. Ultimately, Porter's exoneration contributed to the momentum that led to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois in 2011.

Fast forward to 2014. Protess and Ryan’s narrative about the Porter wrongful conviction is in trouble. Big trouble.

In 2014, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez freed Alstory Simon from prison after reviewing his conviction for more than a year. She assailed the conduct of Protess and Ciolino.

From the Chicago Tribune:

"The bottom line is the investigation conducted by Protess and private investigator Ciolino as well as the subsequent legal representation of Mr. Simon were so flawed that it's clear the constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected as our law requires," said Alvarez, who indicated she would have considered obstruction of justice or witness intimidation charges if the statute of limitations hadn't run out.”

After he was released, Simon and his attorneys filed a $40 million federal lawsuit against Ciolino, Protess, and Northwestern, claiming that Simon had been framed. They alleged a pattern of misconduct by Protess at Northwestern.

The possibility that Porter is an example of a wrongful exoneration poses an elemental question about wrongful conviction advocates and the media: Were they working together to pressure prosecutors and politicians to push for the exoneration of Porter?

More and more, it looks as if they were.  

In Alstory Simon’s lawsuit against Northwestern, his attorneys cite this media pressure as a factor for the prosecutor in 1998, Dick Devine, to release Porter from prison and convict Simon.

In a 2013 letter to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez demanding that she re-investigate the case, Simon’s attorney wrote the following:

 Unfortunately, a prior administration of the Cook County State’s Attorney [Dick Devine’s], acquiesced in a coordinated effort between Northwestern representatives and a local media outlet to pressure the CCSA into a hasty and regrettable rush to judgement.

In short, Simon’s attorneys argue, wrongful conviction activists had essentially intimidated prosecutors to do their bidding, a stunning intimidation of the prosecutor’s office.

With the Porter case falling apart under renewed scrutiny, what does it say about Governor Ryan’s decision to pardon Hobley and three other men in 2003?

It suggests this: The wrongful conviction movement had made deep inroads into the media, the prosecutor’s office, then the governor’s.

And it got worse, quickly.

After Hobley got out, federal investigators, seeing that a great travesty might have taken place, began to re-investigate the case. Many federal agents believed that prosecutors would re-indict Hobley. Those charges in 2008 were imminent, they believed.

But the Feds never did. The Feds moved away from indicting Hobley and instead focused on the long-sought indictment of former police commander Jon Burge. Hobley got a $7 million settlement. To indict Burge, federal prosecutors used statements Burge made in a civil lawsuit brought by attorneys for Hobley.

Whatever one’s beliefs are about the magnitude of misconduct by Burge and his men, the Hobley case seemed a bizarre one to use as the means to go after Burge. Hobley, after all, was convicted of a mass murder, exonerated with no new evidence by a governor who himself was about to go to prison on corruption charges.

One Federal agent who worked on the Hobley case was Jim Delorto. Here is what he said about the arson:

“The evidence in the Hobley arson case is so overwhelming and of such specific detail and volume that no jury in any court would not have found him guilty beyond any doubt. In my eight years as supervisor of the ATF federal bomb and arson task force, there has never been a clearer case of guilt. For the federal government not to have pursued this case, in which seven African Americans were burned to death, was unconscionable and unprecedented.”

The case against Burge proceeded. Federal prosecutors indicted Burge. The trial took shape.

Remarkably, the federal prosecutors never called Madison Hobley to the stand. They called Hobley’s sister to testify, but not Hobley himself.

Was this a tacit admission by the prosecutors that Hobley could not withstand cross examination by Burge’s attorneys? Would Burge’s attorneys show what the trial against Hobley and all the legal proceedings concluded: That he was guilty of setting the fire?

Burge was convicted, the Burge narrative drowning out the narrative, based on compelling evidence, that not only had a mass murderer, Madison Hobley, been freed, but had also been given a settlement of $6 million from the city.

Even as the mythology about Anthony Porter being innocent fell apart under renewed scrutiny by prosecutors and judges, no one in the city, particularly the media, would tie the evidence of wrongful exoneration in the Porter case to others, like Hobley’s.

And one of the prosecutors who used the Hobley case to convict Jon Burge, one who never called Madison Hobley to the stand?

She was hired by newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx.

With this hire, the influence of the wrongful conviction movement over the prosecutor’s office seems more powerful than ever. Foxx’s administration, which took donations from anti-police donors like George Soros and prominent wrongful conviction lawyers, has already given the green light to several wrongful conviction bids by the very same players and institutions that are accused of misconduct in the Porter case, accused, in some cases, of generating false witness statements.

Before Foxx sells out her whole administration almost completely to the wrongful conviction movement, it’s time Foxx, her staff, and her political allies answer a question first:

Who set the fire that killed seven people on the south side of Chicago in 1987?