CROOKED CITY

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Judge Rejects Innocence Bid...Another Wrongful Conviction Scandal?

 David Protess and the Innocence Project

For a brief period it looked as if the magic had returned to the circus known as David Protess’ “Innocence Project.” After Protess was fired from Northwestern University in 2011 for lying to prosecutors, the university, and lawyers, the disgraced former professor unapologetically announced he would open his own Innocence Project in downtown Chicago, separate from the one he headed at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. At first, little was heard from Protess' Chicago Innocence Project.

 In the meantime, The Conviction Project, several lawyers, journalists and investigators, pressed their case that Protess' biggest exoneration--Anthony Porter-- was a fraud. This group also pointed out evidence of wrongdoing in other Protess cases and painted a dire picture of corruption in the movement, a corruption so deep that it resulted in the release of killers back into the community, put the public at risk, and attempted to ruin the lives of good cops. To those in the know it was obvious that the criminal justice system was broken.

In response to the outcries for justice in the Porter case, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she would review it, including the claims by an inmate in the prison system, Alstory Simon, that he was railroaded by Protess and his private investigator, Paul Ciolino, as well as several Northwestern students, into confessing to the murders that freed Porter. Alavarez's willingness to review the Porter case is another sign that the wrongful conviction activists are perhaps guilty of the worst wrongful conviction in the state's history.

 However, Alvarez's review of the case was announced more than a year ago. The prosecutor has still made no decision regarding the Porter case--and the fate of Alstory Simon--despite the fact that even the former prosecutor who was in charge of the case in 1999, Thomas Epach, stated he did not believe in Porter's Innocence or Simon's guilt.

Still, even with a top prosecutor condemning Porter's exoneration, Alavarez waffles and Simon wastes away in prison. 

Stanley Wrice 

Undaunted by the controversy surrounding his conduct as head of Northwestern's Innocence Project, and the Porter case in particular, Protess eventually announced another wrongful conviction from his newly-created Innocence Project in downtown Chicago. The "victim" this time was Stanley Wrice.

Wrice was convicted for the 1982 brutal rape of a woman. The theory that convicted him said Wrice and some friends were driving around the south side when they approached the victim, Karen Byron, and invited her into their car. They then took her to Wrice's house where they repeatedly raped her, beat her, and burned her. Byron's burns were so severe she was taken to the burn unit at Loyola hospital. 

Byron reportedly identified three of the offenders. Wrice confessed and was sentenced to decades in prison. Like so many other wrongful conviction claims, Protess got some suspicious witness recantations in the case and claimed his client was beaten by Area 2 detectives, who were part of the now infamous Jon Burge crew. That's all it took to get Wrice out: a few witnesses who miraculously changed their statements and a lawyer’s claim his client was tortured into confessing.

When Protess successfully pushed this claim and Wrice was released from prison, the Chicago media machine that has been rubber stamping his cases without ever checking the facts celebrated Wrice's release as another wrongful conviction, despite the gravity of his crimes and the clear sentiment among many people familiar with the case that Wrice was, in fact, guilty.

 Prosecutors could have retried Wrice, but it would be nearly impossible, with witnesses having changed their statements and the victim deceased. 

After Wrice was released, it seemed Protess and Wrice's lawyers were home free. All they had to do was obtain a Certificate of Innocence and Wrice would be on his way to a multi-million dollar settlement from the City. That's how the wrongful conviction industry works: claim torture, get some witnesses to change statements (witnesses who were fellow gang members or people who stood to benefit from an exoneration) and shazaam, you're on your way to the big pay-off. Far be it for the Chicago media to stand in your way. 

Innocence Rejected

But it all came crashing down last week. Cook County Judge Thomas Byrne rejected the claims that Wrice was innocent of the crimes. 

"Stanley Wrice’s attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, gasped when Cook County Judge Thomas Byrne issued his ruling and declared that there was “substantial evidence” indicating Wrice “actively participated” in the brutal Sept. 9, 1982 sexual assault.

Wrice said the denial of the certificate — which would expunge his conviction and make him eligible for thousands of dollars from the state — was like a “dagger to his heart.”

That's right. The judge ruled that Wrice was likely guilty. And those crucial witness recantations? 

"In his 44-page decision, Byrne said the recantation of two witnesses were “threadbare, untimely and untrustworthy.”

So the judge wasn’t buying the recantations. The judge believed Wrice was still guilty. Was this another example of Protess manipulating witnesses to change their story, as he has been accused in other cases? Don't count on the media to ask such obvious questions. Despite the scandal surrounding Protess' departure from Northwestern and the fact that he has faced numerous accusations of malfeasance in many of his cases, not one media outlet covering the Wrice story brought this information into the coverage of the judge's rejection of Wrice's innocence. Not one pointed out the vast evidence of wrongdoing in the Porter case. Nor was there any mention of witnesses in other cases who claimed they were bribed by Protess, even though the exoneration of Wrice was based in large part on new witness statements. There was nothing about the coercion of witnesses and Alstory Simon. Nothing about the fact that Protess was fired from the university and that the university admitted he had been lying about his cases. 

Another Recantation Scandal

The question of suspicious witness retractions looms even larger in the wake of another, unrelated Northwestern case that imploded last week. Willie Johnson was the central witness in a wrongful conviction claim by Northwestern University's law school. Johnson, a gang member, suddenly emerged after some 17 years to recant his trial testimony about the two men who shot him. This recantation was the lynchpin in Northwestern Law School's wrongful conviction claim. Northwestern lawyers hoped Johnson's recantation would spring two of their clients from life sentences. Once freed, they too would no doubt seek a multimillion dollar settlement.

Instead, the judge and the prosecutor rejected Johnson's wild recantation. Prosecutor Anita Alvarez charged Johnson with perjury. Last week, he pled guilty. 

And it wasn't just Northwestern's law school involved in the case. A broad swath of the wrongful conviction community took part in the attempt to use Johnson's recantation to free other convicted killers. The investigator who reportedly traveled to Lousiana to obtain the recantation from Johnson, for example, works for the law firm Loevy and Loevy. Lawyers from the University of Chicago's Law School also represented one of the inmates trying to get out prison. 

It's an ominous development: some of the city's most prestigious law schools apparently brought forward a witness whose recantation was not only rejected, but resulted in a conviction of perjury, a conviction in which Johnson pled guilty. One wonders. How could Johnson's recantation be so clearly fraudulent to a judge and the prosecutor, but not be clear to all these wrongful conviction lawyers, just as it seemed clear to the judge in the Stanley Wrice case that Wrice was guilty in the rape and his recantation witnesses were “untrustworthy.” And why is there no call to investigate the fact that these activists are bringing forward witnesses who are found guilty of perjury? How endemic are these fraudulent recantations? 

And what about the department heads in these universities? Shouldn't they be investigating how their faculty members attempted to use a statement that was deemed perjurious?

Lingering Questions, Lost Opportunities...

Two more essential points emerge in the wake of Wrice's failed attempt to get a Certificate of Innocence. In freeing Wrice on such frivolous evidence, one can see how dangerously the criminal justice system bows to the influence of the wrongful conviction crowd. Wrice's claims of innocence barely survive scrutiny, but he is nevertheless set free.

 Alstory Simon on the other hand--the hapless victim who "confessed" to the murders that set Anthony Porter free and skyrocketed Northwestern University into international acclaim-- still wastes away in prison, despite the fact that there is about 1000's times more solid, independent evidence of his innocence than the vague, likely fraudulent claims that sprung a convicted, brutal rapist.

The two cases, in comparison, reveal an egregious bias and inequity operating in the city's justice system and the dangerous power the wrongful conviction law firms and activists hold over the prosecutor's office, the courts, and the media.

 The other point is darker, much darker. When Northwestern University admitted Protess had been lying about his cases back in 2011-including the fact that Protess altered evidence subpoenaed by the prosecutor-- the state's attorney's office had the opportunity to initiate a criminal investigation. (Clearly, if a cop were accused of such wrongdoing, with so much supporting evidence, he would have been indicted). Afterward, more allegations of malfeasance arose in connection with the Porter case, then others. For a year, the state's attorney's office has been scratching their head over the Porter case.

If the state's attorney's office had acted swiftly in response to the allegations against Protess at Northwestern and initiated a criminal investigation into what happened there, then maybe Wrice would not have gotten out. Perhaps a criminal investigation into the conduct of Protess would have undermined the integrity of his claims in cases like Stanley Wrice. In other words, maybe another monster wouldn't be roaming the streets, magically transformed in the Crooked City from a predator into a victim and martyr.

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