With Settlement, Tribune Narrative Officially Implodes...
"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..." Eric Zorn, April 2018
For Chicago’s journalists like Jason Meisner, it seemed absolutely crucial not to label Alstory Simon a wrongfully convicted man in their stories on Friday, even though the journalists were announcing Simon had won a groundbreaking settlement from Northwestern University based on the claim that investigators at the school framed him for a double murder he did not commit.
How could they identify Simon as wrongfully convicted, when this is a journalist from a newspaper that in 1999 shamelessly championed the claim that Simon was guilty of two 1982 murders so that the convicted murderer already residing on death row, Anthony Porter, could be released—a paper that to this day has not even interviewed the detectives who worked the murder case in 1999?
Those were glorious times for the Chicago Tribune, especially for writers at the paper like Eric Zorn and Steve Mills, whose coverage of Northwestern’s Innocence Project during the key period in 1999 when they got Simon to confess to the killings played such a crucial role in Porter’s exoneration and the explosion of the wrongful conviction movement in Chicago.
How, then, could the newspaper now admit how badly they got this story that has done so much damage to the criminal justice system in Illinois, even a paper that relentlessly pushes the narrative of a “code of silence” among Chicago police officers to this day? As far back as 2005 the overwhelming evidence that the Porter case was dirty was established in court. An attorney representing the detectives in the case, accused of framing Porter, argued not that the detectives did nothing wrong, but that Porter was indeed the killer. And the attorney won, essentially re-convicting Porter. Again, that was 2005. After the trial, the attorney, Walter Jones, repeated to reporters, including Eric Zorn, that he believed Porter was guilty. Zorn wrote a scathing column against Jones the following day.
Never mind that the Tribune regularly declares other men “wrongfully convicted” on far less evidence than that which pointed to the claim that Simon was duped in 1999 into confessing to the murders of Marilyn Green and Jerry HIllard at Washington Park in August 1982.
So Meisner and much of the journalism community in Chicago put on the puzzled countenance of reporters still trying to figure out the complexity of the case, still puzzled by the mystery of what truly happened in Washington Park in 1982.
Gosh, what happened?
Simon’s lawyers in their lawsuit argued two key factors that led to what they called the false confession of Simon and the false exoneration of Porter. One was the role of the media, who, they argued, pushed the exoneration narrative without checking basic facts, as if the media had been transformed from investigators into advocates. The other was the power this alliance of wrongful conviction activists and the media, now hardly distinguishable from one another, could impose upon elected officials.
It was this pressure, Simon’s attorneys argued, that compelled Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine to release Porter from prison in 1999 and accept Simon’s confession.
These two factors, media complicity and its pressure upon public officials, would intensify in the years after Porter walked out of prison.
For keep in mind, no one was more thrilled by Porter’s exoneration than his fellow inmates on death row, liquid with delight as Porter ran into the embracing arms of Northwestern professor David Protess, the man who spearheaded the investigation that led to Simon confessing to the murders. When they saw Porter get out, they naturally thought, Why can’t I?
So did a bunch of lawyers and activists. That was more than half a billion dollars ago in settlements by the city.
Fast-forward from Porter’s exoneration to 2003. Governor Ryan, facing accusations that he had turned the Secretary of State’s office into his own fund-raising agency, announced he would exonerate four men from death row, thereby transforming his image of corrupt politician into human rights crusader. The same media hysteria that cheered the exoneration of Porter practically swooned at the release of four convicted killers.
Among them was Madison Hobley, sent to death row after being convicted of setting a fire in 1987 that killed seven people. Unable to convince any courts that he was innocent, Hobley now put his hopes on a crooked governor being cheered on by media outlets like the Chicago Tribune, particularly Eric Zorn.
And, like with the Porter case, Zorn and the Tribune ignored or downplayed key evidence pointing to Hobley’s guilt, including the fact that police had overheard Hobley threaten arson against his wife and child just weeks before the actual arson that did kill his own wife and child.
So what? If Porter could get out, couldn’t anyone?
And so Ryan pandered to the wrongful conviction crowd, announcing at Northwestern University in an infamous speech that he was exonerating Hobley and three others, all without any new evidence of their innocence.
Here’s what the New York Times said about it:
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.”
Though 102 condemned inmates have been exonerated nationwide since the death penalty was re-instituted in the mid-1970’s, several experts said they knew of no other case of an inmate being pardoned directly off death row. . .
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.
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.
So how could Meisner, or anyone at the Tribune, declare Alstory Simon wrongfully convicted? What a journalistic nightmare that could follow, for to do so would compel any “investigative” journalist back to the Hobley case.
The Hobley case is, after all, a mass murder.
And there is also an equally terrifying reality in going back to the Hobley case for “journalists” like Meisner, a further destruction of the Trib’s mythology about the police that would be, to steal a phrase from the Tribune’s Eric Zorn, a “bombshell.”
The Hobley exoneration was the case used to convict former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.