CROOKED CITY

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Question Lingers for Anita Alvarez: Where Is The Grand Jury?

Police officers have long been puzzled at the ease with which weak wrongful conviction claims have successfully made their way through the criminal justice system. 

Retired Chicago detectives, for example, stand aghast at how one legal proceeding after another reinforced the conviction of Madison Hobley for seven murders in an arson, including his own wife and child. 

Hobley nevertheless got off death row, was pardoned, and then got a settlement of $6 million. Convicted murderer Aaron Patterson scribbles some claim on the wall of an interview room that he was tortured, and he is set free from a double homicide, netting a multi-million dollar settlement. So too with Ronald Kitchen, Dan Reeves. All these men are cut loose with little evidence aside from a vague claim of torture and abuse. 

To the police, the wrongful conviction law firms and activists seem to have a strange hold on the prosecutor’s office, and they are right. 

The reason for this hold is revealed in the Anthony Porter case, where the evidence clearly shows wrongful conviction lawyers compelled prosecutors into joining their conspiracy. 

Since the Porter case at least, the fix, as they say, has been in.

To be precise, the wrongful conviction attorneys have “owned” the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office since September 7, 1999. 

Part 1

The Alstory Simon Sentencing

This was the date when the conspiring between prosecutors and defense in a major wrongful conviction case became official and illegal. It was the sentencing day for the hapless Alstory Simon, who confessed to a double homicide he did not commit. In court, Simon turned to the family members of the victim and said he was sorry for gunning down Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard 16 years earlier. He then took a 37 year sentence as part of a plea deal. Simon is still in prison. 

Simon was the second person convicted of this crime. The first was Anthony Porter, but he was exonerated for the killings based upon Simon’s confession. 

In the original police investigation, no less than seven witnesses pointed to Porter as the killer. Two of the witnesses testified in court. Porter was convicted and sentenced to death. 

In 1998, Northwestern University’s Innocence Project under David Protess became involved in the case. After a short “investigation,” Protess, his private investigator Paul Ciolino, and several students announced Porter was innocent and that Alstory Simon was the offender. The foundation of their claim that Porter was innocent was a confession they obtained from Simon on a winter morning in 1999.

Simon eventually claimed this confession was coerced. He claimed Ciolino burst into his Milwaukee home with a gun that February morning and threatened violence against him. He said Ciolino claimed he (Ciolino) was a cop and Simon was about to be arrested for the murders. Ciolino showed documents from witnesses that stated Simon was the killer and not Porter, then advised him he could get the death penalty. Threatening Simon with life in prison and even violence if he didn’t cooperate, Ciolino, according to Simon, forced Simon into making a taped confession to the two murders. 

Simon also made a claim that was by now common in Protess/Ciolino exoneration cases. He said he was offered a shortened prison sentence and money from movie and book deals by the two men if he would confess to the crimes. 

In one of the most incredible twists in the confession, Ciolino corroborates the claim that Simon asked for an attorney during their meeting. Ciolino picked up the phone at Simon’s apartment and called an attorney who was a personal friend back in Chicago, Jack Rimland, who also rented office space from Ciolino. 

In addition to not telling Simon to remain silent, Rimland didn’t tell Simon to call the police and have Ciolino removed. Rather, he encouraged Simon to plead guilty to the murders on tape without the attorney even reviewing the case, and despite all the evidence of Simon’s innocence, including the six witnesses who still fingered Porter. 

Alstory Simon’s lawyers recently pounced on the validity of this confession and the conduct of Rimland in a letter to prosecutor Anita Alvarez, demanding that Simon be released from prison. 

“…Alstory [Simon’s guilty] plea is directly attributable to provable misconduct of his attorney, Jack Rimland, who was hired by and working on behalf of Ciolino and Protess. In that role, Rimland lied to Alstory about the strength of the State’s case, and withheld explosive grand jury evidence of Porter’s guilt from both Alstory Simon and the court.”

Armed with the videotape of Simon’s confession, Ciolino delivered it to a network news station in Chicago. It was broadcast.  Suddenly the whole city was electrified by the contention that the state had almost executed an innocent man. 

Part II

Battle in the State's Attorneys Office

While many in the media cheered Devine’s decision to release Porter and take Simon into custody, there was in fact a battle raging in the prosecutors' office over the decision. Thomas Epach, chief of the criminal division, who knew the Porter case better than anyone, believed Porter was guilty, despite Simon’s confession. He also believed the Simon confession was more than suspect. Epach recently stated in a sworn affidavit that he made these beliefs known to his boss, Dick Devine, at the time Porter was released in 1999, but Devine rejected them. 

Devine’s decision to release Porter was made in large part because of the beating he was taking in the local media, a beating spearheaded by the Chicago Tribune, which became a virtual public relations office for Protess and his wild claims. The paper had written numerous articles claiming Devine’s office may have wrongfully convicted scores of offenders. Now, the paper was alleging the biggest wrongful conviction ever, Anthony Porter, a man, the paper kept repeating, who had come within two days of being executed. 

Epach insisted in the prosecutors' office that Porter was likely guilty. The problem was that Devine had already released Porter without any conditions. How would it look if he suddenly re-indicted Porter, a man he had just set free? No doubt the Tribune would hammer him mercilessly once again. 

In response, Epach, without the permission of Devine, called for a grand jury hearing into the case. He also called all the witnesses on it, intent on showing the holes in the Northwestern claims and all the evidence that Porter was indeed guilty. It was a strange twist in the case that revealed the discord in Devine’s office: Who calls for a grand jury after they take action in a case? Usually one establishes the evidence in a grand jury, then takes action based upon the evidence revealed. 

But Epach was intent on showing that Devine had made the wrong decision. 

Epach assigned another prosecutor, Thomas Gainer, to run the Grand Jury. 

The transcripts of these hearings are explosive. They reveal, step by step, the fraudulence of the Northwestern “investigation” into the Porter case. They also stand as a chilling window into the tactics of the wrongful convition movement and they reveal clearly just how corrupt the decision by Devine to release Porter and convict Simon truly was. 

Gainer discovered, for example:

—Northwestern students hadn’t even bothered to talk to four of six witnesses in the case. Four of the six witnesses corroborated in exact detail the statements of two witnesses discovered hours earlier. Rare indeed was it for detectives to find two groups of independent witnesses who provided identical statements, all of which fingered Porter.

—They had not bothered to even speak to the detectives, though their theory that Porter was innocent was based on the claim that detectives had framed Porter. 

—Protess, Ciolino, and the students harassed a central witness into the case into changing his story, part of a pattern of coercion taking place at Northwestern, according to Alstory Simon’s lawyers.

—Numerous independent statements that witnesses had been bribed into changing their testimony. 

—The Northwestern group had clearly coerced a confession from Simon through threats of violence, intimidation, and bribery.

Consider this exchange between Gainer and Protess about four witnesses to the shooting;

Q: And your students didn’t investigate those four men, did they?

Protess: No.

Q: You didn’t ask Paul Ciolino to find those four men?

Protess: No.

Q: You didn’t go out yourself and look for those four men?

Protess: No.

Q: None of your group ever conducted any interview of those four men?

Protess: That’s correct.

At the conclusion of this Grand Jury hearing, Dick Devine faced an ominous decision. The Grand Jury investigation all took place in the winter of 1999. Devine and Gainer knew from the Grand Jury hearings that the witnesses still fingered Porter for the killings. They knew that Protess and his students hadn’t really investigated the case at all. Most of all, their own prosecutor, Thomas Epach, who was chief of the criminal division, was telling them Porter was likely the killer and they had no right to arrest Simon. Epach was also pointing out that the so called confession by Simon was clearly coerced.

For six months Simon remained in the county jail, awaiting his sentencing hearing. For six months Devine’s office had the opportunity to set the case right. Then in September, Gainer walked into court and accepted a confession from Simon, a confession in which Simon took a sentence of 37 years in exchange for pleading guilty. 

Not only did Gainer walk into court and allow Simon to confess, so did Simon’s lawyer, Jack Rimland, who was also aware that the witnesses still fingered Porter. 

In doing so, according to court transcripts, both Gainer and Rimland lied to the trial judge, not revealing all the evidence that Porter was still guilty and that Simon had nothing to do with the murders. In fact, Gainer misrepresented key eyewitness testimony. Gainer did so by taking evidence that pointed to Porter being the killer and falsely using it against Simon. Rimland also knew this evidence against Simon was false. 

Both Gainer and Rimland also knew that the videotaped confession obtained by Ciolino from Simon was clearly coerced and would not hold up in a trial. 

Not only did both men lie to the judge, they both neglected to tell Alstory Simon about all the witnesses still fingering Porter. Obviously, if Simon knew about these witnesses, he would not have pled guilty. He would have gone to trial. And if he had gone to trial, his so called confession would finally get the legal scrutiny it deserved, a scrutiny that Devine’s office clearly refused to apply: The confession would have been laughed out of court. Epach desperately wanted to rip this confession apart. That was one reason he called for the Grand Jury. 

Part III

 Conspiracy

Here is where the case becomes highly nuanced and deeply disturbing. To review: Simon was arrested in February of 1999. His sentencing hearing was not held until September of 1999. Neither Gainer nor Rimland could be certain Simon would stick to the agreement that he would confess. More importantly, neither Gainer nor Rimland could be certain that the other lawyer would continue with the conspiracy against Simon. 

What if, for example, Gainer walked into the sentencing hearing, telling the judge there was no exculpating evidence against Simon, and then Rimland pulled out the exculpating evidence that Gainer himself had uncovered?  Gainer would be ruined and likely face criminal charges. Conversely, how did Rimland know that Gainer wouldn’t cave in and announce that his own Grand Jury hearing proved Simon was innocent? Both men were taking a huge risk by taking a false confession. 

The only reasonable answer was that the two men conspired before they walked into the courtroom. Both attorneys had to know the other would stick to the fiction that Simon was guilty. Neither man would walk into a courtroom and lie without having some guarantee the other one would go along with it. 

Epach’s statement that he had argued with Devine that Porter was guilty and Simon was innocent reveals that Devine knew the case against Simon was fraudulent as well. In fact, as Gainer’s boss, clearly the decision to throw the case resided with Devine. 

And here is the kicker. Rimland had been obtained to “represent” Simon by Professor David Protess and his private investigator, Paul Ciolino. Rimland had gone along with the plan to frame Simon from the get go. Certainly Rimland was keeping Protess apprised of the case, clearly he was working with Protess in the framing of Simon.

When the prosecutor’s office caved in and accepted Simon’s guilty plea, Protess knew he had pulled off the ultimate scam. He had invaded the sanctity of the prosecutor’s office and coerced it into his own conspiracy. The plan to free Porter and indict Simon was, after all, concocted by Protess. Clearly he knew both lawyers were ignoring exculpating evidence when they took Simon’s false confession. He knew they were colluding. And it worked. Two sides of one murder case lied, knowingly convicting an innocent man after the guilty one had been freed from prison. 

Protess had essentially flipped the Cook County State’s Attorney. 

Of course, he had help. He couldn’t do it without the strict obedience of the local media, who echoed his claims without checking any of the facts, particularly Steven Mills and Eric Zorn. One has to wonder how cozy was the relationship between Protess and his media acolytes. With the new evidence of corruption in the prosecutor's office, it's more clear than ever that Protess' supporting journalists refused to look into the case at all. Moreover, this new evidence has been completely ignored by the Tribune, which has imposed a kind of news blackout on the subject, a sign that the once venerated paper is engaged in a coverup. The paper has refused to review the conduct of Mills and Zorn in this case.  

Part IV

The Fallout

In any case, following the exoneration of Porter, prosecutors began folding on one wrongful conviction case after another. The death penalty was ended. Governor Ryan pardoned more killers. It was a devastating blow to the police department. One detective after another was accused of the worst abuses with little or no evidence. 

Devine’s capitulation to the wrongful conviction movement’s strong-arm tactics leaves the current prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, in a tough bind. The evidence of corruption in Devine’s office has been sitting on her desk for a long time and a growing chorus has demanded that she review the Porter exoneration. 

Finally, 10 months ago, Alverez announced she would review the case. Agents of her office have reportedly taken a deep look into it. A spokesperson for Alvarez's office announced a few weeks ago that a decision would be forthcoming within a few weeks, but, as of yet nothing. Clearly the prosecutors have seen the evidence of Porter’s guilt and Simon’s innocence revealed in the Grand Jury of 1999. Clearly they understand the role Thomas Epach played in making sure this evidence saw the light of day, and clearly they see how Devine’s office went ahead and accepted a false confession from Simon. 

Now Alvarez faces the same dilemma as her predecessor, Dick Devine: evidence or politics?

Devine chose politics. 

What will Alvarez choose? If it is the evidence, then surely there will be a Grand Jury.  

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