Jim Dey | Man's suit about being framed for murder ends with silence

Jim Dey | Man's suit about being framed for murder ends with silence

The $40 million lawsuit filed by a man who claimed he was framed for murder by a Northwestern University journalism instructor and his students has ended — not with a bang, but a confidential settlement agreement.

Legal papers disclosing the settlement were filed last week at the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The terms will remain under wraps.

"Everything is under a confidentiality agreement," said Naperville lawyer Terry Ekl. "I cannot make any statements about the terms of the settlement agreement."

Ekl did say, however, that "we're pleased with the result."

The lawsuit, filed by onetime convicted murderer Alstory Simon, presents one of the wildest sets of facts ever contained in a civil lawsuit.

The gist of the allegations is that onetime-celebrated, now-disgraced former Northwestern journalism Professor David Protess worked to frame Simon for a 1982 double murder in Chicago so that he could free the real killer, Anthony Porter, from prison.

After coming close to being executed, Porter was freed in 1999 after Protess and his investigators claimed they had identified — and won a confession from — the real killer, Simon.

Porter subsequently became the poster boy for wrongful convictions and the broad-based public fear of executing an innocent person.

When former Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly repealed Illinois' death-penalty statute in 2011, references to the Porter case filled the air.

But Ekl had a different version of the facts. He described Porter as a "stone-cold killer" who was wrongfully freed, not wrongfully convicted. He said his client, Simon, had been fooled into confessing and then sold down the river by a Protess-provided lawyer.

"Simon continues to assert the validity of the claims made in the federal lawsuit," Ekl said.

The targets of the lawsuit also maintain they did nothing wrong.

Protess' lawyer, Matthew Piers, said his client is "proud of the work he did on this case. ... He believed that he acted absolutely appropriately."

Piers said Protess agreed to the settlement because of the high cost of defending the lawsuit.

At the same time, the lawsuit was a huge embarrassment for Northwestern University, which at one time bragged effusively about Protess' work in death-penalty cases before firing him as his legal troubles mounted.

Most people will not remember the 1982 slayings of Marilyn Green and her fiance, Jerry Hillard, in Chicago's Washington Park.

But the case would subsequently generate screaming headlines nationwide as well as a documentary ("Murder in the Park") and a well-researched book ("Justice Perverted") by William Crawford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

Two huge questions that will never be satisfactorily answered surround the case:

— Assuming Simon's allegations are correct, why would Protess frame an innocent man to free a guilty man?

— Why would Simon confess to a crime he did not commit and later plead guilty before recanting his statements and trying to get out of jail?

Simon has been the beneficiary of a legal finding that he was not involved in the double murder.

At the same time, when Porter tried to win an innocence finding in court, lawyers for the city of Chicago argued that he was, in fact, the man who killed Green and Hillard. The jury rejected Porter's request for a certificate of innocence based on arguments that he was the killer.

This is a multi-layered case that has gone on for more than 35 years. Ekl said he has been working on Simon's behalf for 15 years.

The explosive allegations in Simon's lawsuit held the promise of finally revealing to the public what happened in this mind-bending story. At the same time, the high profiles of many of the key players posed the potential for extreme embarrassment that made a settlement the most prudent of action for all concerned.

Simon, now 67 and living in Ohio, presumably has been compensated for the nearly 16 years he spent in prison. He was freed in 2014 after former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez conducted an exhaustive review of the case.

Alvarez said she concluded that "the investigation of this case has been so deeply corroded and corrupted that we can no longer maintain the legitimacy of (Simon's) conviction."

This case is, in a sense, a metaphor for official corruption in Illinois. There was wrongdoing on a massive scale that will never see the light of day because, for various reasons, everyone involved has clammed up.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 2178-351-5369.