THE BLOG

The Tribune Murdered the Truth

11/01/2013 09:47 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

This is my confession.

Although I read the opinion pages of several publications every day, I never glance at editorials in the Chicago Tribune. It's not a matter of principle. They're boring.

The subjects are predictable, the writing uninspired and the solutions squarely inside the box. And, frankly, on the rare occasions I can find six quarters for the rickety metal stand near my Oak Park home, it has to be shaken violently like a vending machine to get its disappointing bounty.

But I broke with precedent on Oct. 29 when a friend told me he heard from another friend about a Trib editorial that he thought might interest me. "Who Committed Murder?" the editorial's headline blared. Its focus was on a double homicide of a young couple that led to the conviction and near-execution of Anthony Porter in 1998. Porter was freed after another man, Alstory Simon, confessed to the slayings on videotape.

The Trib's take on the case was that we no longer know who actually committed the crime, thanks to new information unearthed by James Sotos and Terry Ekl, Simon's lawyers. The crusading duo convinced the Trib's editorial board that a private investigator might have duped Simon into confessing and then handed him to a defense lawyer who was a personal friend.

The private investigator was Paul Ciolino, who was part of a team I headed at Northwestern University that reviewed the case in 1998-99. The team included student-journalists at the Medill Innocence Project. Fourteen years later, the Trib breathlessly called for a special prosecutor to take a fresh look at the case because "The question now is whether Alstory Simon was wrongfully convicted with help from the Innocence Project."

Nasty stuff -- if it were true. But here are the facts that the Trib editorial flatly distorted or conveniently ignored.

Before Simon confessed in the living room of his Milwaukee home, the Porter case was unraveling. The prosecution's only eyewitness to the murders recanted to the Northwestern team, saying police had coerced him into fabricating a statement against Porter, a neighborhood troublemaker. Was the witness's recantation legit? In fact, the team determined that the witness could not have seen the shooting because, based on his own testimony, his view would have been blocked by a tall black fence.

But there was more. A relative of Simon's came forward to swear that Simon had confessed to him the night of the crime. He suggested we talk to Inez Jackson, Simon's estranged wife, whom he said had witnessed the shootings. At our first meeting in Milwaukee, Jackson signed a sworn statement and, on videotape, vividly described the murders in a way that matched the crime scene evidence.

A few days later, investigator Ciolino rang Simon's doorbell to discuss the case, including Jackson's statements implicating him in the crime. What happened next is hotly disputed, but there is no question that Simon gave his consent to a videotaped interview in which he calmly and methodically described the murders he said he'd committed. The video shows that Simon even acted-out the shootings.

But Simon wanted to be sure he wouldn't land on death row like Porter, so Ciolino gave him the names of three lawyers, one of whom was a personal friend. Simon chose the lawyer-friend, according to Ciolino, because Simon was impressed that the lawyer had saved the life of another confessed killer three years earlier.

After dwelling on the ethics of getting a killer to admit guilt when he'd rather not be executed, the Trib's editorial devolves into a hand-wringing lecture about conflicts-of-interest, glossing over all the crucial developments that happened after Simon made his confession.

This may come as a shock to the Trib's editorial writers, but the Cook County state's attorney's office did not take my word for it when I told them Porter was innocent and Simon guilty. State's Attorney Dick Devine, no bleeding heart, ordered a thorough review of the case. Prosecutor Thomas Gainer, now a respected judge, summoned numerous witnesses before a grand jury, including Ciolino, my journalism students, me and many others.

Eventually, Simon was charged with murder. That's when he could have said: "I'm innocent. I was tricked into confessing." But he didn't do it.

Seven months passed after his videotaped confession. Simon appeared before Chief Judge Thomas Fitzgerald with the option to clear his name at a trial or plead guilty and receive a 37-year sentence. Once again, he could have recanted his confession and professed his innocence. But he didn't do it.

Instead, Simon took the deal. Then he turned and tearfully apologized to the mother of Marilyn Green, the female victim.

"I didn't mean to hurt her, your daughter never did anything to me," Simon said, according to a transcript of the proceeding. "It was an accident and she got in the way. When the shots started, she was coming past me... By the time I saw her, it was too late, and I had already squeezed the trigger."

Yet the Trib's editorial failed to mention this telling moment -- a curious omission because Simon's tearful apology was reported in the Trib's Sept. 8, 1999 editions and quoted again in their front page story last week. (The Trib's recent coverage of Simon's plea didn't mention, however, that as part of the deal Milwaukee prosecutors agreed not to charge him with another murder for which he was under investigation.)

After Simon was sent to prison, an unpleasant place where Simon had plenty of time to think, he could have recanted his confession and professed his innocence. But he didn't do it. instead, he granted an interview with Milwaukee TV reporter Colleen Henry:

"I just pulled it up and started shooting. I thought I got away with it....long as it wasn't brought up, I wasn't going to say anything," he said on camera. But when private investigator Ciolino told him an innocent man was on death row for the crime, "that's when I decided that I was not going to let this man die for something he did not do...and that's when I told the investigator, 'okay, man, let's do this [the videotaped confession].'"

As for Simon's regret over shooting Marilyn Green in cold blood: "Sometimes I'd be laying there and asking myself if she could hear me and that if she could find it in her heart to forgive me for what happened," he moaned. More remorse followed, this time about Anthony Porter: "I feel someone owes him an apology...the State sure as hell isn't going to apologize," Simon said.

Simon was strangely silent about just one thing: exercising his right to appeal his conviction and sentence. Every day behind bars provided another opportunity to say he'd been hoodwinked. But he didn't say it. This meant that, as a matter of law, his case was over. Res judicata, or "settled law," the justice system calls it. Otherwise, criminals could appeal decades after pleading guilty.

But Simon waited until 2005 -- six years after his videotaped confession -- to file a post-conviction petition brazenly professing his innocence. The petition was penned by James Sotos and Terry Ekl, the same lawyers who later approached the Trib's editorial board and others, including State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. Sotos and Ekl claimed that some of the witnesses who spoke to the Northwestern team had recanted, or recanted their recantations.

So why did Simon confess to Ciolino? To get a piece of a supposed Hollywood deal that Ciolino was peddling, according to the petition. Now there's a reason to admit to capital murder. Possibly making it to the big screen usually trumps the risk of lethal injection.

Every judge saw right through Simon's story, even though the Trib's editorial board did not. Judge Evelyn Clay shot down the petition on the grounds of res judicata and because it "has no merit." The appellate courts unanimously agreed with her ruling -- twice. Inexplicably, the Trib's editorial, in calling for a special prosecutor, failed to mention these fatal legal blows.

Now to Simon's lawyers. Who are these caped crusaders, fighting relentlessly on behalf of an "innocent" client? James Sotos was the attorney for Comdr. Jon Burge, the disgraced cop who for years was responsible for torturing suspects on Chicago's South Side and now is in the federal penitentiary for lying about it and obstructing justice. Sotos' firm has been paid more than $8 million by taxpayers for fighting civil rights lawsuits by exonerated prisoners. Terry Ekl is a former Cook County assistant state's attorney who is known for his wrongful prosecution of Michael Evans and Paul Terry, among the worst miscarriages of justice in Illinois history. Ekl later became a top aide to right-wing Du Page County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett in his bid for higher office.

You wouldn't know anything about Simon's lawyers by reading the Trib's editorial. And, their rap sheets didn't stop Bruce Dold, the Trib's editorial page editor, from getting together with Sotos to hear him out. As columnist Mike Miner reported in the Reader in 2011, the intermediary who arranged the meeting was retired Trib reporter Bill Crawford, another Simon defender. So the seeds were planted for this week's editorial.

Next up is a documentary about Simon's tragic plight by Cleveland TV producer Shawn Rech, one of only two readers who posted comments below the Trib's editorial -- promoting his documentary, of course. Rech recently got an assist in his P.R. campaign from the otherwise sane Trib columnist Eric Zorn, who has embedded trailers for the documentary in his online column, "Change of Subject."

One wonders if Simon is disappointed with the documentary format, preferring a feature film about his life. In his imagination, an actor portraying Simon replaces Porter's character on death row. Morgan Freeman, perhaps, in "Dead Man Walking: The Sequel." The plot is Dickensonian. Simon gives up his life so another man can live in freedom, a far, far better thing than he has ever done. If Freeman is unavailable, maybe Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn in "A Tale of Two Mopes?"

Dold, Zorn and the Trib's editorial writers could play supporting roles. Why not try fiction? They had the chance to tell the truth. But they didn't do it.

Pamela Cytrynbaum, executive director of the Chicago Innocence Project and former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, contributed to this article.