The Watch

News and Information for Chicago FOP members.

The Ends Of The Earth

Time for Tribune To Investigate Coverage From 1999 Exoneration…

A bizarre motion struck down in federal court last week begs a question: To what lengths will the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn and his wrongful conviction allies go to preserve their most doomed narrative about police misconduct and wrongful convictions? 

Turns out, the ends of the earth. 

The question emerges after a federal magistrate judge struck down a motion filed by wrongful conviction attorney Jennifer Bonjean demanding the selective release of evidence in a bombshell lawsuit that challenges four decades of Tribune claims about Chicago’s criminal justice system. No one pushed these claims at the Tribunemore than Eric Zorn in column after column, spanning decades. 

Indeed, the civil lawsuit brought by Alstory Simon in 2014 claiming he was framed for a 1982 double murder by a former Northwestern professor, David Protess, private investigator Paul Ciolino, and Northwestern University is essentiallya rejection of the modern history of the Tribune.

The reason is that Simon’s confession in 1999 spurred the release of Anthony Porter from prison for the same murders. Porter’s exoneration rocked the criminal justice establishment and ended the death penalty. It prefaced a tidal wave of similar claims by inmates, almost all of them based on the claim of police misconduct. Some $700 million in settlements later from the city based on these claims, the Alstory Simon lawsuit stands as a vivid refutation of an entire era of journalism, much of it championed by Eric Zorn and former Tribunereporter Steve Mills.

One could imagine, then, how troubling Simon’s lawsuit is for Zorn and the Tribune, particularly since Simon’s attorneys alleged that the machinations leading to Simon’s incarceration were part of a larger “pattern and practice” of misconduct in a host of other wrongful convictions. 

In light of this lawsuit, a newspaper worth its salt would have reviewed its coverage of this seminal period of Chicago history to see what it got wrong and what it got right. And that review would have to include Zorn’s cozy relationship with Protess, Ciolino, and Northwestern, as evidenced in dozens of the articles he authored parroting their claims of wrongful conviction and police misconduct. 

But that is not what has taken place at the Tribune. On the contrary, what has taken shape looks more and more like a desperate attempt by Zorn and the Tribuneto work hand in hand with wrongful conviction attorneys to preserve the ludicrous claims that Simon was legitimately convicted of the murders and, therefore, also preserve their mythology of police misconduct. 

That desperation took shape throughout the course of the lawsuit, revealed most powerfully through key media leaks about the case made to Zorn and Mills.

Early on in Simon’s lawsuit, Northwestern and Protess asked for and received a protective order in the case, preventing the contents of discovery, including key depositions, from being released to the media. But during the course of the case, Jennifer Bonjean, attorney for accused private investigator Paul Ciolino, requested that somedocuments be released, in particular depositions taken from former Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez. The request was rejected.

But somehow, some way, one document got out, illegally leaked in defiance of the protective order to Zorn and Mills. The document was a memo reportedlyauthored by former Assistant Prosecutor Fabio Valentini allegedly saying that the conviction of Simon was legitimate. 

In a series of columns and news articles, Zorn and Mills portrayed the Valentini memo as the smoking gun in Simon’s conviction. One of Zorn’s columns made bombastic claims about the significance of the memo, beginning the column with the statement “It’s a bombshell,” and ending it with “Ka Boom.”

Here’s what Judge Weisman said about the release of the memo in his ruling last week:

The Court does not know how reporters at the Chicago Tribune gained access to the CCSAO Memo. The timing of the Tribune’s disclosure of the CCSAO Memo relative to the litigation history in the instant case certainly raises suspicions. 

Despite their claims about the significance of the memo, Northwestern and Protess settled with Simon. Clearly these two parties to the lawsuit didn’t see the significance of the memo that Bonjean, Zorn, and Mills did.  

But far from bolstering Zorn’s claims, the selective release of the memo and its portrayal as some kind of smoking gun by media advocates stands just as much as another example of dark collusion between wrongful conviction attorneys and their “media activists,” as it does some journalistic quest for justice and clarity.

That’s what attorneys for Simon said in court documents about the leak:

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. . . . [T]he 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. 

Despite Zorn’s claims about the significance of the memo, the subsequent settlement of the lawsuit is a staggering rejection of the Tribune’s and Zorn’s mythology about police misconduct and killers being innocent. Even Zorn ruminated on the significance of a settlement in one of his columns:

A settlement, no matter how it’s couched, would not only imply guilt or shared responsibility on the part of Northwestern and Protess, it would stand to hamper or help conclude the search for truth to which the institution is ostensibly devoted, and would taint the innocence movement in which Northwestern and its law school have played such an integral role.

But that isn’t the end of the story. 

Even after the case was settled, Ciolino’s attorney, Bonjean, sought the release of some documents in the case. That’s right. The case was settled. Her client, Ciolino, was dismissed. And still Bonjean is seeking the release of somecourt documents:

In his motion, Ciolino requests that the Court lift the protective order in place as to all depositions (except those of former Northwestern students, Shawn Armbrust and Tom McGann) and all documents from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (“CCSAO”) and unseal certainpleadings.

Last week the judge rejected this motion, ending, for now, another move that would have selectively released evidence.

But is there any doubt that the release of this selective evidence would herald another round of media activism on the part of the Zorn and the Tribune, just as their release of only one document from the mountain of evidence through a suspicious and illegal leak did? Is there any doubt that if Bonjean prevails in getting some of the evidence out, she can count on Zorn, and likely other Tribunereporters, to frame it in a manner that will defend the paper’s indefensible narrative? 

How stupid does the Tribuneand Zorn think the public and the FOP truly are? How long will they make police officers, prosecutors, and the public endure this canard?

In her motion, Bonjean specifically states that the depositions of two of the Northwestern students involved in the Porter exoneration, Shawn Armbrust and Tom McGann, remain under the protective order.

Why exclude them?

Well, here’s one possible reason. One allegation that has arisen against Protess time and again is the claim that he was using female students at the school as sexual bait to elicit witness statements. 

From another federal lawsuit making allegations against Protess:

Witnesses from whom Protess procured recantations in other criminal cases have since come forward alleging that Protess and his team of investigators used coercion in various forms—dangling young female college students as sexual bait. . .

A prestigious journalism school using students as “sexual bait”? Certainly attorneys for Simon asked about these issues from the students in their depositions. If the attorneys didn’t, they should have been fired. But why doesn’t Zorn and the Tribuneinvestigate these claims? Why didn’t Zorn or Mills procure a media leak on this subject? 

Or consider another case tied to Bonjean that Zorn has remained utterly silent about. This is the exoneration  of Stanley Wrice for the rape and severe burning of a woman in 1982. Bonjean represented Wrice in his quest to claim he was wrongfully convicted of the crime that took place in his own home and where the victim spent months recovering in the burn unit at Loyola Hospital. When Wrice applied for a certificate of innocence, the judge rejected it, saying he thought Wrice was guilty.

And Protess? He’s tied to this case as well. Students working for his Chicago Innocence Project, after he left Northwestern in the midst of a scandal in which the university said he had lied about his investigations, obtained witness recantations in this case as well. The judge commented that the witness recantations were “suspicious.” 

And so it goes. 

Earlier this year, the governing board of the Fraternal Order of Police, fed up with trying to get the Tribune to cover the corruption in the industry of suing police officers by freeing criminals like Porter, voted unanimously to cease cooperating with the Tribune

And until the leadership of the paper conducts a review of Zorn’s and Mills’s coverage of this case, any police officer, police union representative, or prosecutor would be crazy to cooperate with them until the paper pays the heavy, perhaps unpayable debt it owes to so many honest police officers and readers. 

Ka Boom, Eric. 

Ka Boom.