Illinois state attorney Anita Alvarez has vacated the 37-year prison sentence of a man whose 1999 confession to a double-murder was obtained through “corrupt” means by a Northwestern University journalism professor and his team of student investigators, one of whom is currently a reporter with The Associated Press.
The outcome of the specious investigation, led by David Protess, then of the Northwestern University Innocence Project, was significant because it served as a catalyst for then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to end the death penalty in the state in 2000.
The work of Protess’ team helped free Anthony Porter, but it put another man, Alstory Simon, behind bars.
The story began in 1982 with the South Side Chicago double-murder of Jerry Hillard and his pregnant fiancee, Marilyn Green. Porter, a local gang member accused of other shootings, was identified by several eyewitnesses as the trigger-man. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
But Porter was ultimately freed from prison on Feb. 5, 1999, a mere 50 hours before he was scheduled to be executed for the murders. The 44-year-old Porter was held up as a poster-child for the anti-death penalty movement.
He got off because Protess’ team, which included a private eye named Paul Ciolino and several of Protess’ students at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism — including Cara Rubinsky, who is currently a reporter with The Associated Press and Shawn Armbrust, who now works with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project — recorded Simon’s confession on videotape.
But the way the sleuths went about getting the confession has been heavily criticized and raised enough suspicion that Alvarez, the state attorney in Cook County, vacated Simon’s sentence late last month.
She said Protess’ team used “a series of alarming tactics” that were so flawed that they ensured that the “constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected.”
Alvarez also cited witnesses present at the South Side park that night in 1982 who “maintain to this day that it was Anthony Porter who did the shooting.”
Another witness who never testified — a man named Ray Brown who was 12 years old at the time of the shooting — said in 2011 in an interview that he saw Porter pull the trigger. He said he distinctly remembers the tattoo on Porter’s face.
Protess and his team targeted Simon because Marilyn Green’s mother had mentioned back in 1982 that he was with Hillard and her daughter shortly before the shooting.
As a journalism professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and as head of the school’s Innocence Project, Protess would assign students the task of investigating cold cases.
In Dec. 1998, Protess and the team interviewed William Taylor, who claimed he saw Porter commit the 1982 murders. Taylor reversed that statement, telling Protess that he had not seen Porter pull the trigger.
In Jan. 1999, the investigators secured an affidavit signed by Wesley Jackson, the nephew of Inez Jackson, who was married to Simon in 1982 but had by then divorced.
Both Wesley and Inez Jackson signed affidavits claiming that Simon had confessed to them that he shot Hillard and Green.
On Feb. 3, Simon confessed to Ciolino and another investigator to the shootings on videotape, saying that he shot Hillard and Green in self-defense.
Porter was released Feb. 5, 1999. Simon was arraigned the next day.
But Simon recanted that confession in 2001, alleging that Protess and his team used shady tactics, threats and false promises to coerce him into admitting guilt.
According to Simon, Protess and two of his female students showed up to his home in Milwaukee in 1999 and told him, “We know you did it.”
According to a 1999 New York Times article, Protess had the two students, Rubinsky and Armbrust, interview Simon while playing “good cop.” He would enter later and play “bad cop.”
Simon asked the team to leave, but days later Ciolino, the private investigator, appeared alongside another man. Both were armed, and the second man falsely claimed to be a Chicago police officer.
The pair showed Simon two videos: one of Simon’s ex-wife, Inez Jackson, fingering him for the shooting; another of a person claiming to be a witness who blamed Simon. That supposed witness turned out to be an actor.
Simon later said Protess’ team promised him money from book and movie deals and a light sentence if he would confess to the shooting. Simon also claims he was high on crack cocaine when all of this was going down.
There was another major conflict of interest.
After Simon confessed to the shooting, Ciolino secured for him a pro-bono attorney named Jack Rimland. No random choice, Rimland had worked with Ciolino and Protess in the past and was on board with the plan to free Porter.
On Rimland’s advice, Simon pleaded guilty to the shooting and apologized to the victims’ families in court.
Simon’s new legal team found other evidence suggesting that Protess’ tactics were flawed, if not unethical.
They discovered that as early as 1994 Porter had leaned on Walter Jackson — both of whom were in prison together at the time — to falsely state that Simon had admitted to shooting Hillard and Green.
Jackson then contacted his aunt, Inez Jackson, by then Simon’s ex-wife, asking her to make a similar claim.
According to Simon’s new attorneys, Protess and the students were first led to the Jacksons after speaking with Porter in Dec. 1998. After that meeting, Protess sent a letter to Wesley Jackson asking the prisoner to call him at home.
But both Wesley and Inez Jackson later recanted their statements claiming that Simon admitted to the murder. Wesley Jackson said that Porter had promised to help get him out of jail if freed. Inez Jackson said that she hoped to get her nephew and his son out of prison by blaming Simon.
Simon’s attorneys cite numerous pieces of evidence suggesting that both Protess and Ciolino employed coercive tactics in their investigations.
The attorneys pointed out in a court filing that in his 1998 book “Promises of Justice,” Protess wrote that Ciolino had posed as movie executive Jerry Bruckheimer, promising a movie deal to a witness in exchange for testimony.
Both Henry Williams and Inez Jackson, who died in 2005 from complications from HIV, were plied with alcohol during their interviews with Protess’ team, they claimed.
Protess eventually separated from Northwestern University in 2011 after the school accused him of misrepresenting facts on “many documented occasions.”
In her press conference announcing Simon’s new freedom, Alvarez said that Porter would not be charged again with the murders, citing protections against double jeopardy. She also said that Protess would not face any charges.
The Daily Caller reached out to Rubinsky, Armbrust and the Innocence Project, but none returned a request for comment.
(Photo: Anthony Porter, Getty Images)