Burge Keeps Pension. Will David Protess Keep His?

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled this week that former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge will get to keep his police pension, despite the fact that he is in prison for a perjury conviction. Burge's conviction arose from his denial in a civil deposition that he abused suspects. 

The court reviewed the Burge pension issue at the same time the Cook County States Attorney conducted an investigation into a seminal wrongful conviction case involving David Protess, the disgraced former professor at Northwestern University’s Innocence Project.

Protess is currently under fire for his participation in the 1999 exoneration of Anthony Porter for a double homicide, an exoneration that included a bizarre “confession” obtained by Protess and his associates from another man, Alstory Simon, now serving a 37-year sentence for the murders. 

The case is being reviewed by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez as part of the Conviction Integrity Unit, an agency created under Alvarez that reviews cases based upon new evidence of wrongful conviction.

“With the creation of this unit I am demonstrating my commitment to bringing our very best efforts to ensure that only guilty people are convicted here in Cook County. And if we have any reason to believe that we have prosecuted or are prosecuting someone who is actually innocent, we will continue to take immediate steps to investigate the matter fully to see that justice is served,” Alvarez said. 

Alvarez’s review of the Porter case comes in response to a vast body of evidence submitted to Alvarez's office that Porter was in fact the killer, despite his exoneration. Critics of the exoneration say Porter was released from prison only because of alleged “coercive” tactics by Protess, his private inversigator Paul Ciolino, and several hapless Northwestern journalism students. The allegations include coercing a confession from Alstory Simon, bribing witnesses, and obtaining a lawyer for Simon, who, according to a letter written to Alvarez by attorneys, engaged in “provable misconduct."

What is also emerging in the case is the fact that Protess was able to pull off the Porter exoneration because of his allies in the local media, particularly disgraced Tribune writers Eric Zorn and Steven Mills. Mills is a graduate from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. The record shows these journalists broadcast Protess’ claims without checking the facts, as they if they were public relations employees working for Protess, not journalists at a major metropolitan newspaper looking into a brutal double homicide. 

This record includes the clear fact that the Trib writers never bothered to review basic documents in the case, nor the specific facts of the police investigation, before they wrote about it.

Their coverage of the case begs a question: If these journalists didn't review the record, how could they know whether there was a frame up by the police? 

Now that the new evidence is coming out about the case, the Tribune has initiated a virtual blackout on the story, ignoring crucial new evidence of Porter's guilt that competing newspapers have splashed across their front page.

It’s not just the Porter case that points to wrongdoing at Northwestern during Protess’ tenure at the Innocence Project. 

In 2011, Northwestern itself announced that they had discovered evidence arising from another wrongful conviction case that Protess had lied and doctored evidence. Protess was removed from his teaching position shortly after this evidence was discovered in a internal review conducted by the school. Protess then left the school altogether, but not before the school issued this bombshell statement: 

“The review uncovered numerous examples of Protess knowingly making false and misleading statements to the dean, to University attorneys, and to others. Such actions undermine the integrity of Medill, the University, the Innocence Project, students, alumni, faculty, the press, the public, the State and the Court,” the statement read.  

To some people, making false statements to the state and court is another way of saying they committed "obstruction of justice," the same charge, ironically, that were successfully leveled against Jon Burge. 

But that wasn’t all. Alstory Simon’s attorneys recently wrote a letter to Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez requesting the release of Alstory Simon from prison based on all the evidence, old and new, that Porter was the killer, not Alstory Simon. In doing so, Simon's attorneys listed other cases that illuminated a pattern of what they called was “coercive tactics” by Protess and Ciolino, including the following:

—Prosecution Witness Charles McRaney in the Ford Heights Four case stated Ciolino posed as movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and offered McRaney money, a movie contract and money from a movie deal in exchange for testimony. McRaney told prosecutors that Protess told McRaney he could “use” one of two female Northwestern students if McRany recanted testimony. 

—A key witness in the Madison Hobley case, Andre Council, testified that Ciolino came to his home with Hobley’s attorney and offered the witness' daughter a free college education and enough money that “he would never need to work again” if the witness would recant his statement.

—Prosecutors discovered emails in which Protess brought a female student to a meeting with a jailed witness as a “treat.”

—In the Alstory Simon case, witness Inez Jackson admitted implicating Alstory Simon in the murders because Protess said he could get Inez’s son out of jail. She also said Protess and Ciolino promised her a large payday for fingering Simon. 

—Witness Walter Jackson also stated that Protess offered to get Jackson out of jail if Jackson would help Porter. 

“All told, six witnesses in Alstory (Simon’s) case corroborate that Protess and Ciolino offered book and movie deals in their presence…” said Simon’s attorney in the letter to Alvarez. 

And what about the journalists who gave voice to Protess’ claims in the Porter case and others? A cursory review of the Porter investigation by Detectives Salvatore and Gray reveals the Northwestern claim that the detectives coerced witnesses in the case was impossible. 

Is it possible journalists did not even review the police investigation? It doesn’t look as if they did. In fact, there are some signs these journalists helped cover up the truth. One of the most disturbing examples was by Eric Zorn, a columnist clearly dizzy with admiration for Protess.

This evidence came out in a civil trial against the detectives. Porter’s attorneys were clearly expecting to make millions in a settlement. But the detectives fought for the case to go to trial (hardly the behavior of detectives who had "framed" someone). In response to the detectives'  demands that the case go to trial, it was farmed out to  an attorney named Walter Jones. At first Jones thought Porter was innocent and he planned on settling. That was until the detectives walked him through it, taking Jones to the crime scene at Washington Park. In doing so, Jones quickly saw Porter was guilty. He refused a settlement and courageously went to trial, arguing that Porter was the killer. Along the way, he found more witnesses fingering Porter. 

The jury agreed with Jones' theory and came back with a not guilty verdict against the detectives. Shocked, one journalist walked over to Jones and asked how it could be that Porter got no money. Jones pointed at Porter and said Porter was the killer.

Furious that Jones would dare contradict the Northwestern party line about Porter being innocent--even though Jones had just proved in court that the Porter exoneration was false-Zorn wrote a scathing personal attack on Jones.

“The City of Chicago owes Anthony Porter a big apology for a stunning, graceless and infamous accusation lobbed at him by an attorney representing the city,” wrote Zorn, arguing the ludicrous claim that the city of Chicago owed an apology to a predatory killer, lifelong gang member and enforcer, stick-up man, and wife beater, whom six witnesses fingered as the offender in a double homicide. 

But what about the evidence in the trial? Why didn't Zorn write about that? Had Zorn even bothered to hear it? Had he listened to the witnesses? How come a jury of 12 could see so easily that the Porter arrest was legit, but Zorn couldn't? And why would he assail an attorney who had just proven it? 

Another example of Zorn's possible journalistic collusion with Northwestern is his vilification of those fighting for Alstory Simon and those fighting to clear the names of the detectives.

Zorn refuses to address an obvious question: If the Porter case held so much evidence of malfeasance, what about other wrongful conviction cases, like the ones listed by Simon's attorneys? Rather than vilifying the attorneys, police, and journalists who point out the evidence of wrongdoing at Northwestern, shouldn't Zorn be investigating it? 

It's as if Zorn, Mills and the Tribune are afraid to look at the dark world the Porter exoneration reveals, one they embraced without questioning.  

Zorn's columns and blog entries have unleashed a wave of antipathy by active and retired cops, many whom have slowly learned about the Porter case and Northwestern University. Many of these cops have been the victims of his poison pen. Some have attempted to post on his blog, demanding that Zorn explain himself, but he is now censoring it, not unlike the Tribunes' refusal to cover crucial new evidence in the Porter case. It's quite a fall for a columnist who, like Protess, once rode high on the wrongful conviction bandwagon.

In any case, Burge can keep his pension.

Will Protess keep his? 

 

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