Cause and Effect

For a great many people who decry the failure of the criminal justice system to distinguish the guilty from the innocent, groups like the Innocence Project have attained near god-like stature.  People are passionate in their support, and believe in the righteousness of the cause with all their heart and soul.  And that’s why Alstory Simon spent an extra 15 years in prison.

From Jim Stingl at the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal:

The first time I wrote about Alstory Simon, then a Milwaukee north sider, was in 1999, right after he confessed to a double murder in Chicago.

Simon’s shocking admission — not to police but to an investigator working for Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project — led to the release and pardon of a man on death row for the crime, and ultimately to the death penalty being abolished in Illinois.

Two years later, I wrote about Simon again. This time he had reached out to me from prison to say the confession and subsequent guilty plea were involuntary. He insisted he was innocent, as do most inmates who send letters to reporters from prison.

Stingl was less than receptive to Simon’s plea.  After all, he confessed to the murders, and an innocent death row inmate walked.  The world was righted, and we know so because the Innocence Project said so. His view changed.

Simon, who moved to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s to find work, is not granting interviews, his attorney, Terry Ekl, told me. But Ekl echoed Alvarez’s criticism of former Northwestern journalism professor David Protess, who led the Medill Innocence Project, and the investigator on the team, Paul Ciolino.

“In my opinion, Northwestern, Protess and Ciolino framed Simon so that they could secure the release of (Anthony) Porter and make him into the poster boy for the anti-death penalty movement,” he said.

This smacks, as written, of malevolence.  But it’s far more likely to be passion.  The Innocence Project team wasn’t led by a lawyer, but a journalism professor. Let’s assume he believed passionately in his cause. Let’s assume the best of his intentions, if not his competence.  The upshot of the passionate is that they believe so strongly that they are blind to reason, to ethics, to skepticism, to the notion that they could possibly be misguided.  There is nothing more deadly to reason than passion.

Last week, Simon walked out of prison a free man after Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced that her office, after a yearlong investigation, was vacating the charges against him and ending his 37-year sentence.

The investigation by the Medill Innocence Project, she said, “involved a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards, they were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon’s constitutionally protected rights.”

The truth took 15 years to come out. That’s 15 years that Simon, now 64, spent behind bars.

The more passionately Protess believed in his cause, the easier it was to justify burning Simon for the greater good.  And burn him they did.

Protess and two of his journalism students came to Simon’s home in the 200 block of E. Wright St. in Milwaukee and told him they were working on a book about unsolved murders. According to Simon, Protess told him, “We know you did it.”

Then Simon received a visit from Ciolino and another man. They had guns and badges and claimed to be Chicago police officers. They said they knew he had killed Green and Hillard, so he better confess if he hoped to avoid the death penalty.

While the government is constrained by the Constitution, passionate people have no constraints.  But it didn’t end there.

They showed him a video of his ex-wife, Inez Jackson, implicating him for the crime — a claim she recanted on her death bed in 2005 — and another video of a supposed witness to the crime who turned out to be an actor.

They coached Simon through a videotaped confession, promising him a light sentence and money from book and movie deals on the case. Simon, admittedly on a three-day crack cocaine bender, struggled to understand what was going on.

Some may struggle to understand how Protess could be so enamored with Anthony Porter’s need to be exonerated that Alstory Simon’s life became meaningless. Perhaps he was sure, with the same myopic passion that afflicts cops, that Simon was the killer, and the ends justified the means.  One end was freeing Anthony Porter. The other end, finding a body to replace Porter.  To that end, it got even worse:

Perhaps worst of all, they hooked up Simon with a free lawyer to represent him, Jack Rimland, without telling him that Rimland was a friend of Ciolino and Protess and in on their plan to free Porter.

Such great guys, giving him a free lawyer to sell him down the river.  Jack Rimland still practices law in Chicago.  A request was made to investigate him, but there doesn’t appear to have been anything further.

Assuming the absolute best, that Anthony Porter was innocent of murder, should have been exonerated and was saved from execution by the Medill Innocence Project, the sacrifice of Alstory Simon to achieve that end remains utterly unjustifiable.  Among the options are that Protess was so passionate about saving Porter that he somehow rationalized destroying Alstory Simon to achieve his goal, or that he was so cavalier and malevolent that he didn’t care if he destroyed the life of an innocent man to save an innocent man.

Either way, it’s inexcusable.  No amount of zeal for one innocent person justifies the destruction of the life of another.  Whether it’s done by an entity beloved or hated, it doesn’t matter. No amount of blind passion excuses what the Medill Innocence Project did to Alstory Simon.

18 thoughts on “Cause and Effect

  1. Patrick Maupin

    While you’re absolutely right that passionate unreasonable people are dangerous, there’s a chicken and egg problem there — it’s obvious in many cases that an “end justifies the means” mentality permeates the thinking, but my more frequent personal observation is that the passion is inflamed partly by the underlying inability to think clearly.

    Like most of your stories, this one is very sad. But is there really nothing to prosecute here? To a layman, it looks like conspiracy with someone who pretended to be a police officer, resulting in false imprisonment. Maybe it’s unworkable, or maybe it’s too late, but there’s a message here well worth sending if it’s feasible to do so. Of course, Medill has reasonably deep pockets, so the message may be delivered the usual specious way.

  2. glasnost

    Sorry to leave two critical comments in a row, but I find this story to be factually implausible to the point of absurdity. There’s no confirming evidence whatsoever that any of the claims here are true, except the statements of the drug addict who just got released, and an unreviewable set of assertions and actions by a prosecutor – a member of the same class whom you’ve built an entire blog making the point: these guys lie constantly.

    They sound like really incredible claims, and there’s no record in this story that anyone even asked the people being accused for comment. The Innocence Project guys posed as cops, committing crimes? His defense lawyer was “in on the scheme”? This is really, really implausible.

    Skepticism of the actual facts is completely missing here to an egregrious degree. The whole thing has a James O Keefe / ACORN feel to it.

    1. SHG Post author

      Perhaps you missed the part where Alstory Simons has already been exonerated and released from prison based upon the proof. That you find the story implausible is irrelevant; the backstory is what it is, whether you find it plausible or not. If you’re interested in the background, it’s available online.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        It’s all OK, right? I mean, the journalists are complaining that law enforcement pretended to be _specific_ journalists, so as long as the journalism professor’s toady pretends to be a _generic_ cop, there’s no harmful deception.

  3. bacchys

    The part that struck me was Alvarez saying their methods were “coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards…”

    Since when?

  4. Peter Gerdes

    Far from being inexcusable sacrificing simon to the greater good was quite possibly morally mandatory (though I doubt the people doing it saw it this way).

    I mean if one thinks about the impact of the innocence project it is not a result of the people they actually exonerate. That is an incredibly small number out of the population (usually death penalty sentences) that have received far more scrutiny and care than your average 30 year prison term or even life.

    No, the innocence project picks particular examples to defend and has sizeable impact by demonstrating just how easy it is to end up convicting the wrong person. They pick particular examples to convince the public that statistically there must but a great many more unknown injustices.

    So let’s ask. Did this innocence project investigation substantially increase public concern (and thus protections) about false convictions. Well yes, it even lead to the end of illinois death penalty system. Did this likely lead to far more good than the wrongful conviction of a single man. Certainly. Does the eventual exposure of their tactics and methods undermine their message?

    No, actually seeing just how easy it was for the INNOCENCE PROJECT (not even part of the system) to, with the best of intentions, send an innocent man to a 37 year sentence IS AN EVEN BETTER DEMONSTRATION OF THE FRAILTIES OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM THAN THEIR ORIGINAL EXONERATION AND RIGHTFUL CONVICTION. Even more amazingly they managed to do this despite lacking any corruption, corner cutting or other behavior we would be amazed absent from a large bureaucracy like the police with the massive handicap of another man having already been convicted of the crime.

    Fuck, I’ll even volunteer. I would be truly miserable but if I could be convicted in a way that sent as strong a message to the public about the inadequacies of the criminal justice system (and I had perused the evidence to my satisfaction that such sentiment would genuinely work to reduce the suffering and hardship caused by our inadequate system) then it’s not only my moral duty to let someone railroad me but their duty to railroad me.

    Systemic reforms protect millions (or at least hundreds if they only minor tweaks). What is that against a single man’s false conviction? Ironic given the ideals of the people working in the innocence project but true.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’ve made a assumption (that the Innocence Project’s concern for the cause of wrongful conviction is greater than its concern for the individuals it represents), and bootstrapped that assumption into a justification that is contrary to fundamental notions of law (think Blackstone’s ratio). I’m fairly sure Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld would tell you that your assumption is utterly false. While they would hope to accomplish both, it was never their purpose to sell out the individual for the cause. You may find that acceptable, but they would not.

      That said, please let them know you volunteer the next time they need a warm body. I’m sure they will appreciate your sacrifice. I know I will, as will the innocent person who would otherwise get sold down the river.

    2. Rick Horowitz

      Someone’s been watching too much Star Trek.

      And not reading enough criminal defense blogs.

      It’s good that you want to volunteer. The rest of us should similarly get to decide what to do with our own lives.

      Simons clearly did not volunteer. Maybe he missed your memo about his duty?

      Or perhaps better than “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” we could try adopting “two wrongs don’t make a right”?

  5. Peter Gerdes

    Actually, we don’t even need to look at the public effects. Even if they are just picking the guy they think did it and fabricating a confession the innocence investigators are still more likely to do good than harm.

    I mean the innocence project investigators are alleged to have basically acted with all the motivation and biases that the cops have and to have applied similarly coercive means to achieve a conviction but they get to pick from all the convictions by the police to find a single mistake. So as long as you believe the innocence project investigators are more likely to identify an innocent man on death row to defend than they are to railroad an innocent man info a conviction the second convict is more likely to have committed the crime. To slightly simplify, even if you remember the right answer to test questions 98% of the time if you let your stupid friend who only knows 50% of the answers select a single question of yours to correct his correction will be far more likely than your original to be correct.

    So even the direct effects of their investigation are statistically positive even if they simply decreed the man they thought to be the true killer be sent to jail without trial. Indeed, given the choice to fabricate a false confession by their suspect and failing to overturn the original case fabricating the confession makes it more likely the guilty party spends those years in prison rather than the innocent. So railroading the suspect into a confession was likely the morally required choice even if we only look at the direct effects of their actions.

    True, this is exactly the kind of drive to convict the guy you “know” did it which, in police and prosecutors, is the cause of the inequities they fight but the fact they select only a tiny sliver of cases to work and they only put a man away when they free another result in very different effects.

    Once you include the indirect effects via public sentiment their behavior seems even more justified.

    1. SHG Post author

      You realize that you’ve imposed your normative view of morality on some other poor schmuck. It’s unkind of you to pimp your flavor of morality when someone else has to pay the tab. Your view of justice is fine, but it’s yours. It’s not a matter of argument; you’re allowed to believe whatever you want (no matter how peculiar it may be), just as others are allowed to think your view is dead wrong.

      But since you’ve volunteered to replace any innocent person who is sold down the river for the cause, I am personally willing to forgive your trespasses and allow you your misguided morality. The only qualification is that you have to immediately offer yourself to the Innocence Project as a warm body replacement. Please cc me so I can verify you’ve held up your end of the bargain.

    2. Dragoness Eclectic

      The idea that people like you might be in a position with power over me scares the living daylights out of me.

          1. lawrence kaplan

            Sorry. I saw her reply under yours and failed to realize that you were both replying to Gerdes.

Comments are closed.