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Hidden Agenda Fuels Challenge to Pivotal Death Penalty Case

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Anthony Porter, the exonerated death row inmate whose jubilant release from prison was the catalyst for abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, is back in the news after living in relative obscurity for years. A lot has happened since reporters covered Porter's first steps to freedom, but brace yourself for who's behind his sudden return to the front page.

Hint: it has less to do with the evidence than it does a reality TV show producer and a lawyer with ties to City Hall.

Our story traces to Sept. 1998, when Porter came within 50 hours of execution before getting a stay. Months later, he was freed when the case against him crumbled. Witnesses recanted and an eyewitness swore she saw her estranged husband, Alstory Simon, commit the double murder that had landed Porter on death row. Simon soon confessed on videotape to a private investigator working with a team I led at Northwestern University.

Besides the overwhelming proof of Simon's guilt -- the videotaped confession, his guilty plea to a judge, a tearful courtroom apology for the slayings, damning admissions to a Milwaukee TV reporter -- it was Simon's failure to appeal that forever closed his case.

And yet, as has been widely reported, lawyers James Sotos and Terry Ekl rant that Simon is actually innocent and Porter guilty. The lawyers convinced State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to take a third look at the case, arguably making the matter newsworthy.

On Friday, I challenged the lawyers' claims and chastised the Chicago Tribune for an editorial that gave them credence. I also pointed out the dubious pedigrees of Sotos and Ekl, showing them to be shills for law enforcement whose likely purpose was to undermine the innocence movement by gutting its symbol.

Still, I wondered whether there was more to this story, curious about why the allegations erupted now when they were originally raised seven years ago -- only to be shot down by every judge. Sure enough, a little digging shows that Porter has been dragged back into the spotlight for a more sinister reason. The motive is money.

Today, we look behind the curtain at two shadowy figures who have mounted the next phase of the assault on the truth. They have contrasting backgrounds, but a distinctly common purpose: Selling "Porter" -- a made-for-TV movie about the case.

Christopher S. Rech, 48, runs a Cleveland-based production company, Pinpoint Media. Founded in 2009. Rech's outfit produces the popular "Crime Stoppers," a reality TV show that Rech describes as "an idea for catching bad guys.... a local 'Americas [sic] Most Wanted' type program to generate leads that law enforcement can follow."

But Rech's latest project is "Porter," a documentary he expects to finish shooting next month and hopes to sell to cable TV by February. The recently released trailer contains dramatic stuff, especially when Chicago attorney Andrew M. Hale proclaims this about the evidence that freed Porter: "It was all one big lie."

Wait a minute. Andrew Hale? The go-to guy when Chicago's Law Department needs an outside lawyer to fight civil rights suits?

Yes, that guy. Between 2004 and 2012, City Hall paid $20.5 million to Hale and the other lawyers he's worked with to defend the City against dozens of police brutality and wrongful conviction lawsuits, according to an analysis of public records. About a quarter of the money was paid to fight claims by African-Americans who alleged they were tortured by disgraced Comdr. Jon Burge and his "Midnight Crew."

The conduct of the 51-year-old Hale and his firm were called into question by federal judges in eight cases during the same period, according to court filings. In one of those cases, Judge Matthew F. Kennelly found that Hale and his co-counsel made a "racially motivated" attempt to keep an African-American woman from being seated as a juror in a wrongful conviction lawsuit. Judge Ruben Castillo called Hale's behavior "unethical" while defending a police torture lawsuit brought by an 80-year-old South Side resident.

So what is Andrew Hale doing in a documentary about Anthony Porter?

Turns out Hale is a budding TV star whose sound bytes Rech featured three times in the trailer. But even more important, Hale is credited as the executive producer of the project.

Wondering what an "executive producer" does, I asked Hollywood director and producer Seth Gordon, whose films include the Oscar-winning documentary "Undefeated" and several wildly popular movies, including "Horrible Bosses" "Identity Thief" and "Four Christmases."

"The executive producer credit can signify a wide range of contribution," Gordon explains. "It can mean the person gave or found money for the film," he says, adding that "it's generally safe to assume that an EP credit goes to someone who helped the documentary come into being." What about a TV documentary? "In TV, the EP credit represents a far more significant contribution, usually being part of the genesis of the idea and ongoing management of its production."

Is it possible that Hale provided the idea and money for "Porter?" I asked Rech. He didn't hesitate.

"Andrew Hale brought the story to my attention," Rech says. "He and I are sharing the production costs."

How much are we talking about?

"I don't want to get into budget specifics because that could affect the selling price of the film."

Okay, what percentage of the project's budget comes from Hale?

"Hale's stake in the film and contributions to the budget are under 50 percent."

Then Rech tellingly adds: "Hale and I made the needed investments to hopefully create a great documentary that will be sold and turn a profit."

So let's get this straight. Andrew Hale makes millions at taxpayers' expense defending brutal cops and contesting lawsuits by exonerated prisoners. He invests some money in a TV project that challenges the most famous death row exoneration of our times. Now he and his partner hope to turn a profit at the expense of a man who barely escaped lethal injection and was exonerated by prosecutors, the presiding judge and the governor.

Yet somehow Anthony Porter's photo is on the front page rather than the mugs of Andrew Hale and his merry men. What's wrong with this picture?