Time For Eric Zorn To Take The Stand?
Columnist Eric Zorn claims he is still on a quest to find the truth in a 1982 double-murder case that was in many ways the climax of his career at the Chicago Tribune.
In his column last week entitled “Will a Settlement Short-Circuit Search for Truth in 37-Year-Old Murder Case?” Zorn claims he is interested in poring over the immense amount of evidence in the exoneration of Anthony Porter in 1999 for the 1982 murder of two people in Washington Park.
Porter’s 1999 exoneration came after another man, Alstory Simon, confessed to the murders to a private investigator, Paul Ciolino, working on behalf of Northwestern professor David Protess. A group of Northwestern students was also working on the case as part of the Innocence Project at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Inmates and lawyers throughout the city eyed Porter’s release from death row in 1999 greedily. A bastion of wrongful conviction claims—almost always based upon police misconduct—took shape after Porter walked out of death row. Municipalities like Chicago began writing multimillion-dollar checks for these supposed “wrongful convictions.” The riches transformed once-obscure law firms and lawyers into powerful players in the city’s political and legal landscape, and beyond.
But after a bitter, arduous crusade, a group of lawyers, journalists, private investigators, and former detectives compelled Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to finally review the overwhelming evidence that the exoneration of Porter in 1999 was a fraud. In his column last week, Zorn described this group:
This astonishing story captured the imaginations of a small group of men who’d long been chafing at the numerous, high-profile stories of wrongful convictions, some of them exposed in part by Protess. They saw in Simon’s claim an opportunity to flip the script and vindicate the police and prosecutors who’d been implicated in those stories.
By now it is a lot more than a small group of men who have a clear understanding of the devastation wrought upon the criminal justice system and its servants in the travesty of the Porter case. The reason is that Alvarez released Simon from prison in 2014. In doing so, she assailed the conduct of Protess and Ciolino. Later, Simon’s lawyers filed a $40 million lawsuit against Ciolino, Protess, and Northwestern University.
In his Tuesday column, Zorn suggested that the parties in the case, including Northwestern, may be in settlement negotiations. Zorn decried such a settlement:
Such a strategic surrender by Northwestern might save the school from legal fees in the short run but cost it its reputation in the long run.
Zorn admitted the impact such a settlement would have upon the larger mythology of endemic wrongful convictions:
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.
A key theme emerging in the undermining of Porter’s innocence claim, and other exonerations that followed from it, was a willingness by media activists like Zorn to viciously attack anyone who questioned the exoneration narratives.
Zorn heralded a new era of “guerrilla journalism” in Chicago, one in which reporters and columnists united around a narrative with a strong political agenda. A powerful mix of personal attack and smug arrogance, Zorn leveled hit after hit against those fighting to undermine the evidence of a false Porter exoneration narrative and get Alstory Simon out of prison. Now a host of reporters throughout the city emulate Zorn’s tactics.
Not only was the criminal justice system all but destroyed in the wake of the Porter saga, but so too was the media. In pushing the Porter narrative at the behest of Northwestern, the media moved far afield from preserving the principles of the Republic. Instead, journalism in Chicago seemed to work steadfastly to undermine the system, all under the false claims of social justice and reform.
So it went. The Tribune let fly with accusations of police misconduct in the Porter case without ever even bothering to talk to the detectives involved. To this day, Zorn has never contacted the two lead detectives. Then, in 2005, an attorney representing the detectives in the Porter civil lawsuit that took shape after Porter got out of prison took a long look at the evidence at the behest of the detectives. This attorney, Walter Jones, saw that Porter was guilty and Simon was innocent. He decided not to settle and went to trial. His strategy was simple: using all the evidence in the case, show that Porter was guilty of the crime. Jones and the detectives won. Porter didn’t get a dime.
Zorn exploded. Zorn unleashed a vicious diatribe against Jones for daring to declare that Porter was guilty, a diatribe that stands as an icon of journalistic depravity in Chicago.
Here is why. According to Jones, Zorn had never bothered to listen to the evidence in the trial. Imagine that. A member of the media declaring someone innocent or guilty without even looking at the evidence.
Welcome to Chicago.
Zorn and the Tribune’s guerrilla journalism is apparently gearing up for another attack. In his column, Zorn advocates waiting until all the “witnesses” in the case are deposed to gather the “full enough record” of the case. From his column:
At the very least, those itching to be done with all this should wait a few months until the major witnesses are deposed and history has a full enough record to render its own judgment.
A “full enough record”? That would mean that everyone involved in the Porter exoneration and Simon conviction should be deposed, and there is perhaps no person crying out to be deposed more in this case than Eric Zorn himself.
It was Zorn, after all, who broke the key stories in the Porter exoneration, Zorn who clearly had close communications with Protess, Ciolino, and the Northwestern students roped into pursuing Porter’s exoneration. Certainly a “full enough record” calls for a painstaking recounting of Zorn’s actions, conversations, and strategizing. For the question looms: Would Porter have ever gotten out, would Simon have ever been convicted, without the work of Eric Zorn?
Even Zorn can’t deny this looming question in the Porter case:
Had those of us in the media who had believed Simon’s numerous confessions been complicit in putting an innocent man in prison?
Or was a cabal of supporters of law enforcement promoting a cockamamie story to drive its agenda?
To answer that question, Zorn would have to undergo the same scrutiny that those who fought for Simon’s exoneration are going through. If this group must submit emails, documents, and be deposed for hours on end, why doesn’t Eric Zorn, the crusader for truth, the man seeking a “full enough record” of the entire Porter debacle?
There are more than a small group of advocates who like to see Zorn do so. There are tens of thousands of cops, prosecutors, lawyers, and, yes, even journalists who dream of seeing Zorn asked questions about this crucial period between 1998 and 2003.
They would all like to see Zorn take the stand.
They would, indeed.