Zorn Bias A Heavy Burden For City

Poor Eric Zorn. 

He suffers from a malady common in Chicago. It’s called Conspiracy Bias Syndrome. 

It is an incurable condition among Chicago journalists, academics, and activists, one in which the afflicted sees conspiracy in one select subject or group, even if it is not real, but is wholly unable to see conspiracies in other places, even ones with mountains of evidence.  

Zorn’s Conspiracy Bias Syndrome revealed itself again last week in the wake of a reported $25 million counterlawsuit against a collection of people trying to right one of the greatest wrongs in the history of the city’s criminal justice system, the exoneration of a convicted killer Anthony Porter and the conviction of Alstory Simon in 1999.  

In this countersuit, a lawyer representing private investigator Paul Ciolino is reportedly claiming that the group of people that fought for the release of Alstory Simon from prison in 2014 defamed Ciolino in their allegations that he, along with former Northwestern Professor David Protess, conspired to get Anthony Porter out of prison and make Alstory Simon the fall guy for the murders.   

Ciolino’s lawyer filed the countersuit in response to a $40 lawsuit filed by Alstory Simon’s lawyers. 

Despite the fact that Anita Alvarez conducted a year-long review of the Simon conviction and concluded Ciolino and Protess violated Simon’s constitutional rights when they got him to “confess” to the murders, Ciolino still insists that Porter is innocent of the murders. In his countersuit, he is reportedly accusing Alvarez, Simon’s three attorneys, two private investigators, and two writers, Martin Preib and William Crawford, of defamation. 

Throughout the three-decade history of the Anthony Porter case, Eric Zorn has been a champion for Ciolino and Protess, so it’s no surprise that Zorn devoted a column to Ciolino when Ciolino and his attorney announced the counter lawsuit. In his column, Zorn said he’s happy for the case to go to court. To this day, Zorn expresses disbelief at the evidence that Protess, Ciolino, and Northwestern conspired to frame Simon for the 1982 murders:

As flimsy as I believe that suit's claim is that Simon was the victim of an outlandish, audacious and truly evil conspiracy, I'm eager to see it go to trial so that all the principal players can be cross examined or deposed.

Is there anyone even slightly familiar with the Porter case who would believe such a claim by Zorn, that he is anxious for the case to go to court? One would think that the last thing in the world Zorn wants is for the evidence in Porter saga to come out in the open.  

Here is one reason why. Protess first got into hot water at Northwestern about six years ago for his actions in another wrongful conviction case. Northwestern said Protess had provided false information to the school’s lawyer in that case. The university reportedly hired a law firm to conduct a comprehensive investigation of Protess. At the conclusion of that investigation, Protess was prohibited from teaching his infamous wrongful conviction class and he left the school. The findings of that investigation were never released. 

Do Zorn, Protess, Northwestern, and Ciolino really want the findings of this evidence revealed in a courtroom? If the findings in the report are so bad that Protess was prohibited from teaching his class and eventually kicked out of the school, then what was in the report? Inquiring minds would certainly like to know. 

More so, what about the depositions that would take shape in a trial? Does Northwestern want its key personnel sitting down answering questions about Protess? Do they want the students interviewed under oath? And there is one possibility that Zorn might fear above all others: Would the depositions and evidence gathering in the course of this civil trial reveal corruption in other cases? 

And then what about Zorn himself? Will his name arise in a civil trial? How often was he talking to Protess and Ciolino on those fateful months they built their case against Simon? How intimate were their discussions? Why was it that Zorn failed to see any of the evidence that Simon was being set up? Did Zorn cross the line from journalism into advocacy?

What about the 2005 column when Zorn teed off on the lawyer representing the detectives in the Porter case? This lawyer, Walter Jones, had just proven that Porter was guilty of the murders, despite his exoneration. The jury awarded Porter no money. When asked about the ruling, Jones said Porter committed the murders. Furious, Zorn wrote a column condemning Jones for daring to question Porter’s innocence, even suggesting a slander lawsuit against Jones. 

But, according to Jones, Zorn hadn’t even listened to the evidence in the trial. So how could Zorn declare someone innocent or guilty if he hadn’t even heard the evidence? There are probably around 15,000 cops in the greater Chicago area who would like to see Zorn answer that question. 

Zorn is anxious for this trial to commence? That seems pretty doubtful. It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying to the journalism community than a full-scale evidence hunt in the Porter debacle. 

Here is the real reason why: The Porter scandal is shaping up to be a glimpse into the dark machinations that guide the wrongful conviction movement. Four years after Porter was released from death row, Governor Ryan set free four other death row inmates, citing the Porter case as a primary force in his decision. Will corruption in the Porter scandal lead to renewed scrutiny in those cases? 

Eric Zorn wrote about many of these other cases as well, celebrating the release of these convicted killers on the claim that the police were involved in a broad conspiracy to mistreat African American suspects. 

Which brings us back to Zorn’s disbelief that Alstory Simon is the victim of such an “outlandish, audacious, and truly evil conspiracy.”  

Much of Zorn’s career is built upon embracing ludicrous conspiracy theories. All anyone had to do was accuse Chicago detectives that they coerced confessions out of an African American suspect and Zorn took up the case in his columns. Zorn and the Tribune championed the exoneration of Porter in 1999 on the theory that the police framed Porter, without looking at any of the basic facts of the murder investigation or the legal proceedings afterward. 

Here, Zorn’s Conviction Bias Syndrome is on full display. If conspiracy claims arose from Zorn’s friends at the Northwestern, like David Protess or Rob Warden, against cops and prosecutors, well, then, Zorn was often right behind them without having to bother with considering in his columns many tedious facts. 

But when the evidence arises of corruption in wrongful conviction cases, particularly those at Northwestern, Zorn just can’t see it. It’s “flimsy, audacious, outlandish.”

This is Zorn’s Conspiracy Bias Syndrome at its worst.

Under its influence, Zorn ignores other compelling aspects of Ciolino’s countersuit.

Consider the background of Ciolino’s lawyer. Her name is Jennifer Bonjean, no stranger to wrongful conviction cases. 

Zorn fails to mention Bonjean’s connection to another recent wrongful conviction case. In 2014, Bonjean represented a man named Shawn Wrice in Wrice’s attempt to obtain a certificate of innocence after Wrice was released from prison on—drum roll, please—claims that he was coerced into confessing to a vicious gang rape that included severely burning the victim, an attack that took place at Wrice’s own house. 

Wrice was freed from prison through the work of Protess’ Chicago Innocence Project, an institution Protess formed after he left Northwestern under a cloud of scandal. 

A supreme court ruling led to the overturning of Wrice’s conviction on the claim that the men who arrested him were tied to Jon Burge. Wrice claimed he was abused. The state declined to retry Wrice for the crime. How hard is it, after all, to gather all the witnesses in the case together, including the victim, who is now deceased? 

So after garnering his freedom, Wrice, represented by Bonjean, went after the next trophy, the million-dollar lawsuit against the city, just as Anthony Porter, sprung from prison in 1999, due in large part to the efforts of Paul Ciolino, went after a $24-million settlement for Porter’s “wrongful conviction.”

Before recording the judge’s decision in Wrice’s bid for a certificate of innocence, let’s go over the details of the original crime. According to court documents, this is what happened:

The victim, a woman, was walking down the street in 1982 on the south of side when a group of men took her into their car. They transported the victim back to the attic of Wrice’s residence where they attacked her. She was punched several times and raped vaginally and orally. At one point, the victim remembered flames coming toward her face. 

During the assault, according to court documents, one of the attackers left the residence to get some barbecue, then returned. 

Eventually, the offenders had burned the victim from head to toe, causing burns to her legs, breasts, face, thighs, back, buttocks, along with extensive bruises. 

The victim eventually awoke outside. She crawled to a gas station where police and an ambulance were called. She was transported to a burn unit and not expected to live. Based on her statements, investigators were led to Wrice’s home and were let in. They discovered a vast amount of evidence at the dwelling. 

The jury found Wrice guilty of armed violence, aggravated battery, deviant sexual assault, unlawful restraint, and rape. Wrice was sentenced to 100 years. 

So after the state declined to retry Wrice, he was set free, the media dutifully, and falsely, reporting that he was “wrongfully convicted.” What happened was that the state declined to try Wrice again. Bonjean brought Wrice’s case in front of Cook County Judge Thomas Byrne for the certificate of innocence. The judge went through the case and made a bombshell statement. 

Tribune: 

A Cook County judge on Thursday denied a certificate of innocence to a man who spent more than three decades in prison for a rape he said he confessed to after being tortured by detectives under the command of disgraced former police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

In a 44-page ruling, Judge Thomas Byrne concluded that what he called strong circumstantial evidence, eyewitness testimony and physical evidence recovered at the crime scene all "powerfully" pointed to the guilt of Stanley Wrice in the 1982 rape.

So the judge said Wrice probably did it, despite the fact that he had been released from prison. 

Needless to say, Bonjean was none too happy.

The Tribune: 

When the judge announced the decision at a brief hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Wrice's attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, let out a gasp.

"Judge Byrne should not only have ruled in his favor, he should have issued an apology on behalf of the system to Mr. Wrice," Bonjean told reporters later. "And instead he spit in Mr. Wrice's face."

Yes, he did. 

Saying he had expected to be vindicated by the judge, Wrice, 60, called the decision "a dagger in my heart."

So who was right about Wrice, the police, prosecutors, and appeals courts who upheld his conviction, along with the judge at the certificate of innocence who said Wrice was likely guilty, or Wrice’s attorney, Jennifer Bonjean? 

Is Wrice an innocent victim of police misconduct or a vicious predator now walking the streets, just as Anthony Porter is now walking the streets a free man, thanks to Northwestern University’s Innocence Project? 

Zorn has never brought up the judge's ruling in the Wrice case in his columns, never brought up the connection of the Porter exoneration to others. The unfolding tapestry of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement will never penetrate his thick armor of bias. Zorn only takes up wrongful conviction conspiracies when they are aimed at police misconduct.  Any other conspiracy theory is just too “outlandish” and “audacious.”

But as the evidence unfolds of corruption in this movement, more and more of Zorn’s claims seem so much fluff, the tired and disgraceful rants of a washed-out columnist unwilling to acknowledge the magnitude of the destruction his own bias has played in the most Crooked City. 

Martin Preib is a Chicago Police Officer and writer. His first book, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City, was published by the University of Chicago Press. His second book, Crooked City, which played a critical role in the release of Alstory Simon from prison, is available on Amazon. His articles have appeared in Playboy, The Chicagoan, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and New City. He is currently working on his third book about former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and the Hobley arson, titled Burn Patterns.

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