Media Scandal Taking Shape In Key Federal Lawsuit?
It’s a bombshell.
According to the lead detectives who worked the 1982 Anthony Porter double homicide case, Chicago Tribune writers Eric Zorn and Steve Mills never contacted them to hear the account of their investigation.
Porter, who had been convicted and sentenced to death following a 1983 trial, was released from prison by Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine in 1999, in part on the claim of misconduct by the detectives. In 2005, Porter’s lawyers sued the City of Chicago and the investigating detectives for $24 million. Following a brief trial, jurors declined to award Porter a nickel.
Walter Jones, the attorney who defended the city and the two detectives, stated flatly that the jury declined to award any damages because, in fact, Porter was the triggerman.
That’s when things began to go haywire for the narrative the two Tribune employees—Eric Zorn, a columnist, and Steve Mills, reporter—were pushing in their steady flow of articles.
Even after this ruling, the two writers never contacted the detectives, according to a lead detective in the case.
Two newspaper writers alleging that a death row inmate is innocent of a vicious, senseless double murder based, in part, on the claim of police misconduct, without even bothering to talk to the detectives? And then, even when the detectives are essentially exonerated in a civil trial, the writers still don’t bother to hear their side of the story?
In the thirty-year saga of the Anthony Porter case, it’s a crucial question. The reason is that Porter’s exoneration has been transformed from an iconic sign of police and prosecutorial misconduct into a chilling claim in the federal courts that Porter’s exoneration was false, achieved through coercing an innocent man, Alstory Simon, into confessing to the murders so that Porter would be set free.
Simon was released from prison in 2014 by Cook County State’s Attoney Anita Alvarez, who assailed the methods that were employed to obtain his confession. After he was released, Simon’s attorneys filed a $40-million lawsuit against former Northwestern Professor David Protess, his private investigator, Paul Ciolino, and Northwestern University.
In the wake of Simon’s release and his civil lawsuit, the articles by Zorn and Mills have generated renewed scrutiny. Was their coverage fair? Was it biased? Did they look at the evidence in the case? Were they acting as journalists or as advocates for the claim by Northwestern investigators that Porter was innocent?
Last month, their writing about the case generated even more controversy. Attorneys for Simon filed a motion alleging that Zorn and Mills published the content of a memo under a Court protective order in Simon’s federal lawsuit in a bizarre attempt to preserve the narrative of Simon’s guilt, while so much of the evidence pointing to his innocence remains sealed.
One of those articles authored by Zorn began with the sentence, “It’s a bombshell,” and ended with the phrase, “Ka boom.”
Zorn and Mills did so, according to the attorneys, by releasing the contents of a memo allegedly authored by prosecutor Fabio Valentini. That Valentini memo, according to Zorn and Mills, bolsters the narrative that Simon’s conviction was legitimate.
The selective release of this memo, while keeping all the other documents protected, was a violation of the court order and an attempt to sway the jury pool, according to Simon’s attorneys. From their motion:
This Court must enforce its orders in order to prevent the parties and counsel from seeking to influence the jury pool by exploiting protective orders as both a sword and a shield in order to selectively release and discuss those pieces of information which they deem, rightly or wrongly, as supportive of their position.
The attorneys allege that there are “media advocates” working in support of the defense in the case. From their motion:
…the intentional violation of the Court’s protective order in connection with the Valentini memo, has revealed a calculated and stunning lack of respect for the Court’s authority, perpetrated by someone who was fully confident that Defendants’ media advocates would protect their identities, and cover-up their blatant disregard of the Court’s Orders.
"Media advocates”? Would that be Zorn and Mills the attorneys are talking about?
By releasing only the memo to their “media advocates,” while the larger body of evidence remains hidden from public purview, Simon’s attorneys allege that Zorn and Mills are only telling a portion of the tale, one that bolsters their claims about the case. From their motion:
On June 10th, Zorn published a third column about the memo liberally and selectively citing snippets in support of a hyperbolic and illogical headline declaring that Valentini’s “bombshell report...explode[d] Simon’s lawsuit” against the innocence industry.
Attorneys for Simon point out that it is the defense in the case, not Simon’s attorneys, that have used the protective order as a means of keeping evidence from the public. From the motion:
Not once has Plaintiff sought to keep a single piece of information about this litigation, including the Valentini memo, whether favorable or not, from the public eye. Rather, it is Defendants who have successfully obtained broad protective orders shielding massive amounts of information, including all depositions, from public scrutiny. Plaintiff and his counsel have honored the protective order, and have kept to themselves many documents and substantial information which substantiates Plaintiff’s theory that Defendants routinely employed illegal and unethical tactics in order to coerce information from Plaintiff and witnesses in his and other criminal investigations.
The attorneys also claim in their motion that Mills misrepresented their statements in his article about the memo. From their motion:
Following court on June 8th, Plaintiff’s attorneys Terry Ekl and Jim Sotos, were each independently contacted by another Tribune reporter, Steve Mills, who advised that he possessed the Valentini memo and inquired whether they wanted to comment on it. Both Mr. Ekl and Mr. Sotos told Mills that they were prohibited by Court order from commenting on the memo. Mills told both attorneys that he would write that they “declined” to comment. Ekl and Sotos both explained that such a description was inaccurate, and Sotos added that he would very much like to discuss the memo if not prohibited by Court order from doing so.
On the following day, June 9th, Mills published a lengthy article liberally quoting from the Valentini memo which he had “obtained”, and stating that “[t]he attorneys for Simon…declined comment....”
In a period when the credibility of the media is a daily topic, the media coverage of the Anthony Porter saga is daunting, particularly for Zorn, Mills, and the Chicago Tribune. One reason is that the Porter exoneration laid the groundwork for a host of other exonerations, most of which were based upon claims of police misconduct. Indeed, part of the theory by Simon’s attorneys includes a pattern and practice of misconduct by the defendants in the case spanning a number of wrongful conviction claims over the course of several years.
Questions about the integrity of the Chicago media in covering the wrongful conviction movement, therefore, arise not simply in the Porter case, but in the entire movement.
And much of the rest of the media in Chicago, the ones who allege on an almost daily basis that there is a “code of silence” among Chicago Police Officers?
Much of the Chicago media has remained silent about the announcement by Zorn and Mills of a bombshell breakthrough in the case based upon a memo. Most other media seems unwilling to run with it.
In their motion, attorneys for Simon are calling for an evidentiary hearing:
Someone is playing fast and loose with this Court’s orders and authority, apparently confident that the Court will be unable to determine what happened, and the Court should convene an evidentiary hearing in order to get to the bottom of the charade.
One wonders. Could the whole saga of the Porter case have been avoided if Mills and Zorn had simply called the detectives in 1999 and asked them about their investigation into the case, how, for example, they discovered two sets of witnesses hours apart who provided the exact same statement: That Porter was the killer?