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The fuse has been lit. When and if the bomb goes off, prestigious Chicago institutions — Northwestern University, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, prominent media outlets — and people — a sitting judge, a former state's attorney, prominent journalists — will have more than egg on their faces.

That's why it's hard to imagine that a lawsuit filed against Northwestern and onetime prominent journalism Professor David Protess on behalf of a man wrongfully convicted of murder will actually go to trial. Too many have too much to lose — this is a scandal that has to be buried deep.

But what a scandal it is — ironic corruption from the deeply compromised city with an "Ubi est mea" ("Where's mine?") mind-set.

Here's the original storyline.

Crusading journalism professor and his idealistic students investigate a nearly 20-year-old murder case, free an innocent man from death row and identify the real killer.

The story swept Chicago, Illinois and the nation, playing a key role in former Gov. George Ryan's 2003 decision to commute the death sentences of 167 convicted murderers and laying the groundwork for the state's 2011 death penalty repeal.

Here's the real story. The crusading journalism professor and his unwitting student investigators actually freed a guilty man — Anthony Porter — and helped imprison an innocent man — Alstory Simon — with the assistance of a politically motivated state's attorney's office.

Hard to believe at first glance? No question.

But there's plenty of evidence to back up the claim contained in a $40 million federal lawsuit filed by Naperville lawyer Terry Ekl against Northwestern, Protess and Protess investigator Paul Ciolino.

The case, which probably won't go to trial for a year if it goes at all, is in the deposition stage with a witness list of up to 40.

First up is Porter, scheduled to answer questions on May 1.

Two of the bigger witnesses — Judge Thomas Gainer and former State's Attorney Richard Devine — are scheduled for May 10 and 18, respectively.

Devine was the state's attorney and Gainer one of his assistants when the first version of the Porter story first blew sky high in 1999.

The story about the purported Protess investigation clearing Porter already is known. It made nationwide headlines.

What has not been widely revealed is how the media frenzy that accompanied it stampeded the state's attorney office to immediately release Porter from prison without examining either the new (false) Protess evidence or the old trial evidence and, ultimately, charge Simon with murder.

What's even less widely known is that Gainer, at the behest of veteran prosecutor Thomas Epach, subsequently called an informational grand jury that heard testimony from multiple witnesses in Porter's trial. They reiterated their previous testimony that they saw Porter shoot two people in cold blood. Gainer's probe also included Protess and his student journalists; they acknowledged their goal from the outset was to free Porter and implicate Simon.

Yet, just a couple months later at Simon's sentencing hearing, Gainer, with the approval of Devine, falsely told sentencing Judge Thomas Fitzgerald that Simon was the real killer.

In a bombshell affidavit, prosecutor Epach described the Simon sentencing hearing as "Chicago's worst day."

"Here an assistant Cook County state's attorney spends weeks before a grand jury calling witnesses and in the end proving once again that Porter, not Simon, committed the murders. Then a few weeks later that same prosecutor stands before a sentencing judge and doesn't utter a word about that evidence exculpating Simon, as Simon is being sentenced to prison for Porter's crime," Epach said.

Much of the information about the activities within the state's attorney's office is included in former Chicago Tribune reporter William Crawford's book, "Justice Perverted: How the Innocence Project at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism Sent an Innocent Man to Prison."

Crawford reports that he sought on numerous occasions to interview Gainer, now a criminal court judge, and that Gainer responded by having police officers warn him not to bother the judge.

This is an immensely complicated story that stems from a double murder committed in August 1982 in Washington Park on Chicago's South Side.

Multiple witnesses testified they saw Porter, a convicted felon they knew from their neighborhood, shoot and kill Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard in a robbery attempt. None mentioned Simon, who, along with his wife, had been with Green and Hillard earlier in the evening during a neighborhood parade and celebration.

Porter was convicted of double murder as well as the robbery of another person and sentenced to death. He came within 48 hours of execution before his appeals lawyer won a stay of execution while the court determined whether Porter was too mentally slow to be executed.

Years later, Protess, widely praised for his role in previous investigations but fired by Northwestern in 2011, decided to pursue the Porter case. He concluded on the basis of some witness affidavits rejected as inaccurate by investigators that Simon was the real killer.

The gist of the lawsuit is that Protess, Ciolino and the student investigators promised witnesses money and book and movie deals if they would recant their testimony and identify Simon as the shooter.

These witnesses, uniformly poor and uneducated, took the bait, allowing Protess to present affidavits recanting their previous statements that started the media steamroller that convinced State's Attorney Devine to make a preemptive surrender on Porter.

Simon proved to be collateral damage to Devine's effort to halt the flow of bad publicity his office was receiving.

Years later, in 2014, new State's Attorney Anita Alvarez was persuaded to re-examine the Simon/Porter matter. Her report revealed massive wrongdoing by Protess and his team, prompting Alvarez to request Simon's release after 15 years behind bars.

What Alvarez did not disclose, however, was the extent to which important members of her office mishandled the case and acquiesced to or supported Simon's wrongful prosecution and imprisonment. That story, if it ever comes out, has the potential to rattle Chicago's political establishment.

Or, as attorney Ekl puts it, "Devine was making decisions that are going to be somewhat difficult for him to defend."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.