Opinions Editor

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

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The headlines got it right in one respect.

“Anthony Porter, whose case helped end the death penalty in Illinois, dies.”

There’s no question about that. The 66-year-old Chicago man was a crucial ingredient in the potent mix of politics, corruption and morality/amorality that resulted in the death penalty being put to death in Illinois.

“Porter was exonerated in 1999 and released from prison after another man confessed to the Aug. 15, 1982, fatal shooting of two people as they sat in a park on Chicago’s South Side.”

That’s true, too, but bereft of the detail necessary to reveal the scam pulled on the public.

There were, in fact, two people shot and killed — Terry Hillard and Marilyn Green, a young couple. Porter was arrested, convicted, sentenced to death but later released from prison after controversial Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess secured a confession — one later declared by prosecutors to be tainted and suspect — from another man.

Having come at one point within hours of execution, Porter overnight became, as one news outlet reported, the “poster boy” for the anti-death-penalty movement.

The poster boy for innocence, as subsequent events would show, was hardly that.

After Porter was “exonerated,” then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions. He later commuted to life the sentences of 156 death-row inmates and granted Porter a pardon based on innocence.

Ryan’s moratorium was continued by Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn until 2011, when the General Assembly abolished capital punishment.

This story goes back to Protess’ decision to take up Porter’s cause.

The professor directed journalism students whose re-investigations of crimes purported to prove wrongful convictions. It was a great story — crusading kids outperform incompetent cops and prosecutors — but terribly misleading.

It was Protess and an investigator he hired who sprung Porter. They did so by targeting a peripheral character in the original investigation — Alstory Simon — and securing a tape-recorded confession from him.

News of the confession took Chicago by storm and stampeded Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine into immediately pressing for Porter’s release and charging Simon with murder.

Simon later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 37 years in prison.

Why did Simon plead guilty? There is no good explanation other than that he was surprised to be confronted, tricked into confessing and pressured by his lawyer into pleading guilty.

While behind bars, Simon retained Chicago-area lawyer Terry Ekl, who argued that Simon was a victim of coercive circumstances who had been promised he’d serve a brief sentence and then get a big cash payoff.

Hey, this is a weird story.

Ekl later persuaded Devine’s successor, Anita Alvarez, to review the evidence in the case. She concluded there was no evidence to link Simon to the double murder other than the taped confession that Protess secured by what she called “alarming tactics” that were “coercive” and “absolutely unacceptable by law-enforcement standards.”

After Simon was released from prison in 2014, he sued, among others, Northwestern and Protess. In 2018, Northwestern settled the case out of court, the terms never disclosed. It also rid itself of Protess.

William Crawford, a Pulitzer Price-winning former Chicago

Tribune reporter, looked into the Porter/Simon controversy and later wrote a book — “Justice Perverted” — that told how “the Innocence Project at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism sent an innocent man to prison.”

That innocent man, Crawford wrote, was Simon. Relying on grand-jury testimony, Crawford persuasively argued that Porter was, in fact, the shooter and that there was ample evidence, including eyewitnesses, to support the jury’s guilty verdict against Porter and none implicating Simon.

The perspective is supported by the result of Porter’s civil lawsuit alleging he’d been wrongfully convicted. The city of Chicago refused to settle the case and instead argued that Porter was entitled to nothing because he was the killer.

The jury ruled against Porter, a decision that surprised many because of the widespread, but mistaken, perception that Porter had been a victim of a monstrous injustice.

So, yes, Porter was a poster boy of sorts, achieving footnote status in Illinois history. His death was well worth making the news, even if the most salient details weren’t included.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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