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.