End of Journalism, End of Justice?
Eric Zorn’s Legacy Haunts Police Murder Trial
Regardless of one’s opinion about the death penalty, the fact that Spanish Cobra gang member Alexander Villa is not eligible to be executed is a haunting sign of the damage the Chicago media has done to the criminal justice system.
Villa was convicted two weeks ago for the 2011 murder of Chicago Police Officer Clifton Lewis and awaits sentencing. Another offender, the driver of the getaway car, Edgardo Colon, was convicted in an earlier trial and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The third offender who is also accused of shooting Lewis, Tyrone Clay, is awaiting trial.
The fact that none of these men will face the death penalty was highly influenced by the work of two figures in the media: current Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and former Tribunereporter Steve Mills, two “journalists” who wrote for the newspaper in 1999.
It was Mills and Zorn, after all, who ran with the story that Anthony Porter was innocent of a 1982 double murder on the South Side, praising the work of former Northwestern University’s journalism professor David Protess and private investigator Paul Ciolino in uncovering what they claimed was evidence that another man, Alstory Simon, was guilty of the killings. This bizarre narrative made its way through the courts, with Simon eventually “confessing” to the murders and replacing Porter in prison.
Porter, a career thug feared by even the gang members in the projects and Washington Park where he preyed upon innocent victims, is out walking the streets again. If you drive by 47th and Michigan on any afternoon, you might see him milling about the gas station located there, a man who was once supposed to be executed now chomping easefully and freely on a Little Debbie cupcake, seeking handouts.
Porter’s exoneration was the narrative used to end the death penalty in Illinois, cited by perhaps the most corrupt politician in Illinois history, Governor George Ryan, when Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2003 as he released four more men from prison on equally dubious claims of innocence. One of those men was Madison Hobley, convicted of setting a fire that killed seven people.
But in June 2015, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Byrne declared the whole narrative that Porter was innocent bogus.
“Porter’s near execution served as a catalyst for the abolishment of the death penalty by the Illinois legislature in 2011,” Byrne observed in his ruling.
The year before, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez released Simon from prison, assailing the Northwestern “investigation” that led to his conviction.
So the fact that Alexander Villa, a notorious, violent predator for the Spanish Cobras, cannot be considered for the death penalty is directly tied to the Porter debacle. For who could doubt that if there were a death penalty, Villa would be a likely candidate: a career thug and member of a gang that has terrorized Chicago for decades. It was clear in the case that even Villa’s fellow gang members feared him, just as Anthony Porter’s once did.
So in Illinois, the end of the death penalty did not come through legislators and elected representatives debating it. There was no referendum. It did not end through any formal political process. It resulted from one of the darkest scandals in the state’s history that reverberates today, a scandal directly tied to the Chicago media. For Judge Byrne’s ruling contradicts the coverage of the case by Mills and Zorn.
And it wasn’t just the death penalty. The exoneration of Porter, and then the four other men in 2003, gave rise to a powerful partnership between the media and the wrongful conviction attorneys and investigators that permeates the city and state even today. This partnership has played a powerful role in new policies for police officers, new oversight, and legislation. It even paved the way for many elected officials to be voted into office.
One wonders. Would fiercely anti-police official Kimberly Foxx, for example, the protégé of Toni Preckwinkle whose career has been built on alleging police misconduct, have won the election to Cook County State’s Attorney were it not for the mythology of police corruption and false convictions that arose from Porter’s exoneration?
Quite possibly not. In fact, if the Porter exoneration had been recognized as a sham from early on, so much would have been different in the political landscape of the city.
Would there still be a death penalty? Would Villa have received it for executing Lewis?
Such questions will never be asked because the entire media machine of the city is still covering up the Porter conspiracy. The response has been twofold. On the one hand, the media has simply ignored the case and all that it imports. On the other, Zorn and his media allies have attacked those who uncovered the evidence that Porter was indeed guilty and Simon had nothing to do with the murders.
The retired Tribune reporter who broke the story, for example, William Crawford, has been regularly vilified in Zorn columns, as have many others who have challenged his doomed narrative of the case and others.
Zorn isn’t the only one. Mike Flannery is now with Fox News. In 1999 Flannery was with CBS and was all over the Protess narrative, airing several pieces about Simon’s supposed confession to the murders without asking even elemental questions about how feasible it could be, including the fact that Protess and his investigators never even talked to four witnesses in the case who fingered Porter.
And so whether one supports the death penalty or not, the means by which it was eliminated in Chicago is one of the darkest stories in the history of the state, influencing almost every facet of the criminal justice system, including the trial of Alexander Villa for his vicious murder of Clifton Lewis.
It begs a crucial question: When journalism ends, does justice end, too?