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Who's Saying the Innocence Project Sprung a Killer, and Why? 

Anthony Porter walks out of the Cook County Jail after more than 16 years on death row.

Anthony Porter walks out of the Cook County Jail after more than 16 years on death row.

John Zich/AFP/Getty Images

When David Protess—the hotshot professor who helmed the Innocence Project—got in trouble at Northwestern University, James Sotos saw an opportunity. Sotos is an attorney with a client and a message, and he believes that the more compromised Protess's reputation, the better his chances of getting that message across.

If you recognize the name—Sotos was the attorney of disgraced former police commander Jon Burge for years and defended him last year in his federal perjury trial—you might assume you know what Sotos's message is: all those defendants Burge supposedly tortured into false confessions were guilty as sin, and the ones who wound up on death row belonged there.

If you think that, you're wrong but you're warm. It's Anthony Porter, a refugee from death row Burge had nothing to do with, whom Sotos is saying is guilty as sin.

As former governor George Ryan would later tell the story, he was watching television at home when Porter was freed from prison in 1999. Ryan turned to his wife and exclaimed, "How the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and get no relief." Porter, convicted of the double murder of two teenagers in a south-side park in 1982, was exonerated largely through the efforts of Protess and his Innocence Project students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. They not only persuaded one key witness to recant his story, they produced a videotape in which another man, Alstory Simon, copped to the murder.

Simon is now serving a 37-year prison sentence. Sotos, his lawyer, says he's innocent.

The release of Porter was a road-to-Damascus moment for Ryan and Illinois. Ryan went on to suspend executions in Illinois and empty death row, and a few months ago the general assembly and Governor Quinn formally abolished capital punishment. As for Protess, already riding high thanks to the Innocence Project's work in the Ford Heights Four case of 1996, Anthony Porter helped the Innocence Project become arguably the most celebrated academic program in America.

So if you're any sort of a connoisseur of messages no one wants to hear, Sotos's is hard to beat. He claims Porter was cleared of a crime he committed, Simon confessed to a crime he didn't commit, and the Innocence Project got everything hopelessly wrong.

In 2006, when Sotos petitioned the courts to take a fresh look at Simon's case, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn pointed out the weirdness of the situation. For most of his career, Sotos had "specialized in representing cities, counties and law enforcement officials in cases where citizens file suit alleging violations of their civil rights—beatings, coerced confessions and that sort of thing." For instance, when Rolando Cruz asked for a full pardon after finally being cleared of the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County, Sotos represented the county and called Cruz a "con man."

Zorn wrote, "I believe that those behind the effort to free Anthony Porter are on the side of justice. . . . I believe that those behind the effort to re-open Simon's case are interested only in discrediting the integrity of those whose work has attacked the criminal justice system."

But there was a problem, and Zorn conceded it. Simon had needed a lawyer, and the one he got was Jack Rimland, whose name and number were given him by Paul Ciolino, the investigator working for Protess who talked Simon into confessing. And as Zorn noted, Rimland—"acting in his capacity as president of the Illinois Attorneys for Criminal Justice—presented an award honoring those whose efforts had put his client [Simon] behind bars." This was a conflict "too troubling to dismiss as irrelevant." Zorn believed a full evidentiary hearing would vindicate Rimland's defense of Simon and "expose fully the cynical opportunism animating Simon's appeal." But he still thought Simon deserved one.

A judge read Sotos's petition and decided Simon didn't.

"We're bringing another postconviction petition," Sotos told me the other day. "With all this new information coming out about Protess, we're hoping this will serve as a catalyst."

Last month Northwestern accused Protess of repeatedly giving "false and misleading information" to university lawyers who were trying to deal with a subpoena from the Cook County State's Attorney's Office for certain Innocence Project documents. Dean John Lavine suspended Protess from teaching this quarter and then Protess went on leave to try to reestablish a new Innocence Project outside the university.

Besides Protess's troubles, Sotos has one more thing going for him he didn't have in 2006—an analysis of the Porter/Simon case by William Crawford, a retired Tribune investigative reporter. Crawford tells me he heard about the case, asked Sotos if he could look through the files, and wound up spending three months compiling a hundred-page narrative he calls "Chimera." He's e-mailed it to everyone in Chicago he thinks might possibly care—particularly journalists and Medill faculty. "Our purpose here," Crawford begins, is "to set the record straight [and] get that record in front of those men and women, in private and public office, who are in a position to begin at once the task of righting the colossal wrong that has taken place."

Crawford was able to get Sotos and himself a meeting this week with Bruce Dold, the head of the Tribune's editorial board. (" I can't say if we'll do anything with his research," says Dold.) Other than that—and, I suppose, the column you're reading now—he appears to have accomplished nothing and possibly done Simon harm.

Crawford did an "extraordinary job" of putting the case record into narrative form, Sotos tells me, yet "the level of abrasiveness he brings is counterproductive."

The most flagrant example of that abrasiveness I've seen is an e-mail Crawford sent John Lavine badgering him for a response to "Chimera." Crawford tells me neither Lavine nor Al Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, reacted to repeated e-mails until Cubbage finally asked Crawford to leave him alone. Full of typos, Crawford's final e-mail to Lavine ended with this:

"You have a good night. And I will be in that courtroom when you take the shirt off your back and give it to Alstory. And you tell Protess, who threatened me, you tell him, not in your words but in mine that I will kick his ass right up through the openings in both his ear.s [sic]

"My writing, has been sent everywhere: U.s. atty., Madigan, cook county state's attorye, justice department, every editorial writer. It ain't going away. And again, my amigo will own you and your dip shit school."

Crawford admits, "I guess I got a little pissed. If they think they can sit in their ivory tower ten years later and not even acknowledge I'm asking legitimate questions, they're dealing with the wrong person. I'm going to employ the same set of standards they used."

Lavine didn't respond to my request for comment. Cubbage said "Chimera" had no impact on the university's case against Protess, and he personally didn't read it.

Crawford has also repeatedly e-mailed Protess. In March, Crawford spotted an unflattering story about Protess in the Tribune and decided to needle him. "I didn't get a copy of the Tribune this morning. May I borrow yours?" Crawford wrote. Protess responded, "Sure. Which address would you like to have Anthony Porter and his friends deliver it to?" and listed several addresses where Crawford has lived or worked—a flourish Crawford believes was meant to intimidate him.

Exclaims Crawford: "He spends 90 days convincing the world Porter is innocent, and when Protess seeks to exact revenge, it is Porter he is going to send!"

Protess calls his e-mail merely a "jocular counter punch" to a "creepy" e-mail Crawford had sent him a few days earlier:

Professor,

Question: You ever own a 94 Forest Green Infinity, four door, LP Lyd880

Have a nice night.

Call me, Sapphire, cuz the discovery is going to begin.

Protess says that after seeing the "physical threats" made in Crawford's e-mail to Lavine, he stopped responding to him.

Crawford tells me he actually regards Protess as a secondary figure in the Alstory Simon story. "Chimera" is a tale full of big shots—lawyers, state's attorneys, judges—who Crawford says collectively perfumed Porter and screwed Simon, and he wants them all held accountable. He even says his fear is that Protess has been so weakened by Medill that he will wind up taking the fall alone. "My guess is they can make a sacrificial lamb out of him and then stand up and tell the world, 'We've cured the cancer.'"

Since, according to Crawford, I was the only journalist to actually read his report and get in touch with him, he had high hopes that I'd become his champion. When I asked about his e-mails he sounded forlorn, as if his last shot at making a difference was slipping away. He responded with an e-mail that began, "A final appeal."

"I ask that your story does not become my e-mails. . . " he wrote. "Everyone has a copy of my report. They are all sitting on it, pretending it doesn't exist. And if no one acknowledges it, the hope is it will go away. . .

"I ask you on behalf of a man who deserves rehearing, please keep him in mind. . . . Please do not make Simon pay for my indiscretions."

As for Simon, if there's even half as much reason to think he confessed falsely (as Crawford and Sotos insist there is), he'd make an excellent case study for Protess's Innocent Project. Indeed, says Protess, "I was so interested in Sotos's claim that I had lunch at Ina's with him and [cocounsel] Terry Ekl to hear their side. Their story ultimately didn't add up, and a criminal courts judge agreed."

Sotos remembers the conversation. "We told him we thought in his zeal to free Anthony Porter—which was laudable, they didn't have that strong a case against him originally. They snared an innocent person. He got really defensive."

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