For years, investigative journalist Bill Crawford hounded the powers that be in Chicago telling anyone who would listen, and shouting at those who wouldn’t, that an innocent man was in prison, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. So Crawford should be celebrating now. After more than 15 years behind bars, Alstory Simon was released last October when his conviction on a double murder charge was overturned by the state of Illinois. Instead, Crawford says, “There’s a goddamn sinister thing going on here.”
There’s no doubt that Crawford is glad to see Simon free and his own work on the case vindicated. But that feeling is tempered by his doubt that the people ultimately responsible will ever pay for their role in Simon’s imprisonment.
“It took two sides to get this thing done,” Crawford says of the forces that pulled Simon into the murder case and put him in prison.
“This thing” Crawford refers to darkly is the collusion between overzealous state prosecutors and a high-profile leader of a since disbanded franchise of the Innocence Project, a nationally lauded legal program that gathers evidence to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. In this case Crawford and others allege that in its eagerness to free a prisoner on death row, the Northwestern University branch of the Innocence Project framed Simon, and Cook County prosecutors went along with it.
Simon was convicted in 1999 for a double-murder in Chicago in 1982 on the basis of what he says was a coerced confession and released on Oct 30, 2014 after being exonerated by a new investigation. Now, in a bid for restitution and maybe some justice, Simon has filed a $40 million lawsuit against Northwestern and former professor David Protess, famed founder of Medill’s Innocence Project.
According to Simon’s lawsuit, “The horrific injustice that befell Simon occurred when defendants, Northwestern University professor David Protess, Northwestern University private investigator Paul Ciolino, and attorney Jack Rimland, conspired to frame Simon for the murders in order to secure the release of the real killer, Anthony Porter,” the suit reads.
Porter was sitting on death row for the 1982 murders when Protess found him and decided to take up his case. Protess already had a national reputation from earlier work overturning wrongful convictions when he assigned Porter’s case to his class at the Medill Innocence Project in 1998.
In the course of looking to exonerate Porter, Protess and his team landed on Simon and set about building a case against him. Simon had been one of several possible suspects identified earlier in the case dropped by police after multiple eyewitness accounts focused their investigation on Porter.
In 1999, Simon delivered a videotaped confession that he now says was made under false pretenses and duress. Protess’s team delivered the confession and in a lighting turnaround Porter, who had been 48 hours from a scheduled execution, was free on bail two days later.
It was a high profile victory for the Innocence Project and, along with other cases, eventually led to Illinois abolishing the death penalty.
The problem, as Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in a statement after Simon’s release, was that the “investigation by David Protess and his team involved a series of alarming tactics.” Those tactics, “were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law-enforcement standards,” Alvarez said, “they were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon’s constitutionally protected rights.”
One of those potential violations concerns Simon’s defense lawyer Jack Rimland. Simon was introduced to Rimland by Ciolino, the Medill Innocence Project’s investigator. The private eye and the lawyer were personal acquaintances, and Simon’s lawsuit alleges that Rimland, working in concert with Protess, convinced him to plead guilty, based on the fabricated evidence gathered by Ciolino.
In the past, Rimland has denied working with Protess and said that Simon never expressed his innocence while he was representing him. He declined to comment when contacted for this story.
Protess is no stranger to controversy. He retired from Northwestern in 2011 after internal investigations alleged he had deceived witnesses in other cases to extract statements, and “knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions. He also misrepresented facts about these matters to students, alumni, the media and the public.”
The aftermath of the investigation into Protess and his departure from Northwestern prompted changes in Innocence Projects across the country.
“When allegations against David Protess came about and we found out about them, it prompted us to reevaluate the decision to allow journalism projects in the network,” said Seth Miller executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida and president of the Innocence Network, the coordinating board for local Innocence Projects across the country. The Innocence Network is no longer open to journalist projects, like the one Protess ran, because “it was clear to us that the ethical considerations that journalists and lawyers use were different,” Miller said.
Despite the shadow cast over Protess’ work, years went by before Simon’s case got another hearing.
But Crawford argues the injustice done by Protess’ team at Northwestern is only part of the story. What it leaves out, he says, are the people who ultimately had the power to put Simon in prison—the prosecutors.
“The other side of the equation is Gainer and Devine,” Crawford says. That’s Thomas Gainer, and Dick Devine,,the former assistant state’s attorney and state’s attorney, respectively, who headed the prosecution of Simon.
Gainer now serves as a judge in Illinois’ Cook County and Devine works in a private legal practice. Crawford’s “sinister thing” is that neither man currently faces any legal or civil action for their role in prosecuting Simon, despite what Crawford and others say is evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
In the Cook County State’s Attorney investigation that ultimately freed Simon, it focused on Team Protess. No mention was made of wrongdoing by state officials, who were former members of that same office.
Yet a review of the evidence in the case shows a number of troubling irregularities. Thomas Epach is the former chief of the Cook County Criminal Division. He was the lead investigator of the murders for which first Porter, and then Simon, were convicted.
Testimony from an affidavit sworn by Epach reads:
“At the time of the release of Mr. Porter, I was aware not only that the purported confession of Alstory Simon was obtained by Paul Ciolino, who was working on behalf of Anthony Porter, but also that Simon was being represented by attorney Jack Rimland, who had close ties to both Mr. Ciolino and David Protess. I believed at the time that the circumstances of this purported confession needed to be thoroughly investigated before a decision was made to either release Porter or to charge Simon with the crime. I was also aware that there were substantial credible evidence to support the conviction of Anthony Porter and that no physical evidence existed which tied Simon to these murders. Nevertheless, a decision was made by Mr. Devine to immediately release Porter and to charge Simon with the murders of Hillard and Green.”
And there were other serious problems with the case against Simon. When a grand jury was convened to reconsider the evidence after Simon’s confession, the evidence still strongly pointed to Porter’s guilt. But that grand jury was disbanded without ever delivering a verdict on the case. Following that, the case was brought before another grand jury. Only this time none of the witnesses implicating Porter were called to testify and the jury indicted Simon.
Terry Ekl, one of Simon’s lawers who filed the lawsuit on his behalf against Protess and Northwestern, is a former Illinois prosecutor himself. Ekl believes the State’s Attorneys “did a very inadequate job of investigating this case before they made the decision to cut Porter loose and go after Simon.” But he said that holding them accountable is outside of his power.
“We could not fashion a lawsuit against the State’s Attorneys office that would survive a motion to dismiss based on prosecutorial immunity,” Ekl said. “The only thing would be a political ramification for doing a poor job as a prosecutor.”
Crawford, who is writing a book about Simon’s case tentatively titled “Justice Perverted: Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism” tells a story that suggests “political ramification” may be hard to come by in Cook County.
Crawford says that he called Gainer, now an acting judge, “about two weeks ago” to ask him question about the Simon case for the book he’s finishing. Gainer wouldn’t talk to him on the phone but Crawford says he got a message soon enough.
“Forty-eight hours later I’ve got two guys holding up badges at my door, armed to the teeth,” Crawford said.
After inviting them in he found out they were assigned to the criminal intelligence unit of the Cook County Sheriff’s office, dispatched to investigate threats against judges. “I said I know why you guys are here, come on in. They turned out to be gentleman. We sat down at the kitchen table I explained to them what I’m doing writing the book and they left my house laughing.”
Crawford’s account could not be corroborated with the Cook County criminal court, which did not respond to a request for comment before this story was published.
But Crawford isn’t laughing when he talks about the case. His voice jumps like a man worried he’s running out of time. “I’m glad that we are where we are,” he says “but if Gainer skates on this,” and his voice trails off before it jumps again. “He is not named in this goddamned suit. I find that an outrage.”