The Watch

News and Information for Chicago FOP members.

Steve Mills Leaves The Chicago Tribune

A Chicago Tribune journalist who for years has specialized in wrongful conviction cases has reportedly left the newspaper in the midst of an emerging scandal surrounding one of the key cases he covered.

Reporter Steve Mills’ narrative about the 1999 exoneration of Anthony Porter for a double murder is being challenged in a massive $40 million federal lawsuit brought by Alstory Simon and his attorneys, who claim that Simon’s confession to the murders that paved the way for Porter’s release was coerced and false.

Throughout the thirty-year saga of the Porter case, Mills and Tribune columnist Eric Zorn led an unrelenting media charge that Porter was innocent. 

In 2013, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez conducted a review of the Simon confession and conviction—a review that in included the questioning of more than 100 witnesses. After that review was completed, Simon was released from prison in 2014. In releasing Simon, Alvarez attacked the Northwestern investigation that led to Simon’s confession and conviction. In doing so, Alvarez was also attacking the narrative by Mills and Zorn.

Shortly after Simon’s release, Simon’s attorneys filed a $40 million lawsuit against former Northwestern professor David Protess, private investigator Paul Ciolino, and Northwestern.

In the lawsuit, the attorneys alleged a pattern of misconduct in wrongful conviction claims, many of which Mills covered extensively.

Could Porter have been exonerated were it not for the intense media pressure applied to the criminal justice system by reporters like Mills? The question remains unanswered, for now.

But in June, the narrative Zorn and Mills were peddling took another heavy blow. Attorneys for Simon alleged in a motion that Mills and Zorn published the contents of a document, a document that, the attorneys argued, was covered by a judicial protective order. The release of the contents of this memo, they argued, unfairly slanted the story to the narrative that Zorn and Mills had maintained for nearly two decades.

“It’s a bombshell” Zorn announced in one of his columns about the memo:

This bombshell explodes the rationale for Simon's federal lawsuit against former Northwestern University professor David Protess and private investigator Paul Ciolino charging that they conspired to frame Simon for murder.

Not so, Simon’s attorneys argued.  The memo, known as the Valentini memo, they argued was one document of lesser significance desperately holding up Zorn and Mills’ narrative about the case, while keeping the other, larger body of evidence under wraps. The release of the contents of this memo, the attorneys argued, was unfair and could taint the jury pool when the case goes to trial.

The attorneys, reminding the court that they were not the ones who asked for a protective order in the first place, demanded an evidentiary hearing to find out who released the memo. Here is what the attorneys said about Mills’ coverage in their motion:  

Following court on June 8th, Plaintiff’s attorneys…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 [attorneys] 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.

Though Zorn calls the memo a bombshell and Mills also wrote a lengthy article about it, the rest of the Chicago media remained ominously silent. They did not run with it. There was a time in Chicago that such an announcement in a wrongful conviction narrative by Zorn and Mills would generate a media frenzy, like 1999 when they said Porter was innocent. Was the current reticence of the rest of the media a sign that even the media at large doesn’t want to touch the Zorn/Mills narrative anymore?

Was the Zorn and Mills coverage of the prosecutor’s memo little more than a journalistic hail Mary pass, a desperate try to uphold a doomed narrative?

It’s unknown.

But then, a few weeks after Zorn and Mills published the contents of the memo, the announcement came that Mills is leaving the Tribune.

Perhaps some light will be shed on the exact nature of Mills’ and Zorn’s coverage of the Porter case in the course of the Simon trial, particularly on the key days between March 30 and February 6, 1999 that paved the way for Porter’s release.

But already more questions about Mills and the media emerge in the wake of the Simon lawsuit, none more so than the key period of 2003 when Governor Ryan released four men from death row. In releasing the men, Ryan cited the influence of the Porter exoneration four years earlier, or at least the Mills and Zorn narrative about it.  

The four exonerees, none of whom, according to the New York Times, had been able to convince a jury or judge of their innocence, were released by Ryan shortly before Ryan himself would be convicted on corruption charges.

The four men would be released without any new evidence, to the shock and horror of the family members of the victims and prosecutors.

From the New York Times:

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.''

One of those exonerations was for a man named Madison Hobley, convicted of setting a fire in 1987 that killed seven people, including his own wife and child. The Hobley exoneration is one of the cases cited by Simon’s attorneys as part of the pattern of misconduct in the wrongful conviction movement.

The four exonerated men were given approximately $20 millions in settlement money, including approximately $7 million for Hobley.

It is this period of reporting by Mills that should perhaps draw the most intense scrutiny because these exonerations were heavily influenced by the Porter exoneration four years earlier.

Will this scrutiny ever take shape?

The Chicago media, after all, the one that publishes a story almost every week about a “code of silence” among the Chicago Police Department, seems hesitant to dive into these stories anew, even though one of the cases is a mass murderer in which two of the victims were children.

One aspect of the coverage that might draw the attention of an earnest reporter would be in May of 2003, when Mills authored an article on the so called evidence of Hobley’s “wrongful conviction.”

In the article, Mills ignores altogether the fact that Hobley made arson threats against his wife just a few weeks before the arson that took her life and that of his child. The threats, made in front of a witness, were documented in a Chicago police case report.

How could a journalist write about a mass murder case and ignore the fact that the main suspect in the case, the one who confessed twice to the crime, had made threats of committing an arson in front of witnesses just a few weeks earlier?

These threats by Hobley are on the public record for anyone to get ahold of, including journalists.

And they aren’t even under a protective order.  

Questions? Comments? Information to Share?

Email mpreib@chicagofop.org