In Wrongful Conviction Scandals, All Roads Lead Back To Jon Burge

A collector and attorney named Paul Hegness came across a stack of papers in an Irvine, California auction a decade ago. Hegness purchased it. 

The story is recounted in an L. A. Times article by journalist Jean O. Pasco. 

In the stack, Hegness discovered a letter written by a famous American writer, Upton Sinclair, whose novel, The Jungle, initiated a scandal about the working conditions and health and safety of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. 

The 1929 letter contained a bombshell confession from Sinclair, a diehard socialist, to his attorney about the famous criminal case against two Italian immigrants and anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had been convicted of murder in the course of a robbery in Massachusetts.

The infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case had initiated worldwide attention, as activists on the left, among them Sinclair, had claimed that the two men were innocent and had been framed for the murders. 

From, the website of writer Jack Cashill:

In the way of background, local police apprehended Sacco and Vanzetti in May 1920, following the murder of a paymaster in South Braintree, Massachusetts. When arrested, Sacco had in his pocket six obsolete bullets, which matched the bullet found in the body of Alessandro Berardelli, a security guard killed in the robbery. Stuffed in Sacco’s waistband was the gun through which the fatal bullet had been fired. As to Vanzetti, he carried Berardelli’s revolver.

In September 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were both indicted for the murder. At first, Sacco and Vanzetti held little appeal for anyone. A socialist newsman sent up to review the case quickly lost interest. “There’s no story in it,” he reported back to his editor, “Just a couple of wops in a jam.”

A local Italian anarchist cell did come to the pair’s aid before the murder trial and formed a Defense Committee. The committee enlisted the help of the fledgling ACLU among other sponsors and the aid of maverick western attorney Fred Moore, an eccentric leftist in the Clarence Darrow tradition.

The trial and subsequent appeals gained real traction when the Communist International came to Sacco and Vanzetti, glass slipper in hand. Stalin was looking for a way to discredit the American experience, and this trial, when amplified by a friendly media, offered a great opportunity for Soviet agitprop.

Almost immediately, “spontaneous” protests sprung up throughout the world. Europe’s great squares filled with sobbing, shouting protestors, declaiming the innocence of the immigrant martyrs and denouncing the vile injustice of their persecutors. This trial and subsequent sideshow would serve as the prototype for anti-American hysterics in the years to come.

At the time Sinclair wrote the letter, he was working on his own novel about the case, arguing that the two men were innocent. But in the letter, Sinclair drops a bomb. He describes meeting with the defense attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti: 

…Sinclair met with Fred Moore, the men's attorney, in a Denver motel room. Moore "sent me into a panic," Sinclair wrote in the typed letter that Hegness found at the auction a decade ago.

"Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth," Sinclair wrote. " ... He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them."

Sinclair also wrote this:

"This letter is for yourself alone. Stick it away in your safe, and some time in the far distant future the world may know the real truth about the matter. I am here trying to make plain my own part in the story."

Faced with the truth about the crime, Sinclair buried it.


"My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book," Sinclair confided to a friend in 1927.

The claim that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent became a treasured myth among the radical left. Some 25 books were written about the case. Generations of celebrities, intellectuals, and folk singers have bolstered the claim. 

Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of an another Italian anarchist named Luigi Galleani, an advocate of revolutionary violence:

From the FBI:

In seven U.S. cities in June 1919, all within approximately 90 minutes of one another, bombs of extraordinary capacity rocked some of the biggest urban areas in America, including New York; Boston; Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Patterson, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia. The bombings were a concerted effort among U.S. based anarchists who were most likely disciples of Luigi Galleani, a vehemently radical anarchist who advocated violence as a means to effect change, to rid the world of laws and capitalism.

In the past few years, another treasured criminal case among the left claiming convicted criminals were innocent has also fallen apart in light of new, irrefutable evidence. 

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,  a couple executed in 1953 for selling American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, has also been irrefutably proven to be guilty.  A key player in the scandal, at the age of 91, finally told the truth:

…Morton Sobell, the co-defendant in their famous espionage trial, finally admitted that he and his friend, Julius, had both been Soviet agents.

It was a stunning admission; Sobell, now 91 years old, had adamantly maintained his innocence for more than half a century. After his comments were published, even the Rosenbergs' children, Robert and Michael Meeropol, were left with little hope to hang on to -- and this week, in comments unlike any they've made previously, the brothers acknowledged having reached the difficult conclusion that their father was, indeed, a spy. "I don't have any reason to doubt Morty," Michael Meeropol told Sam Roberts of the New York Times.

With these latest events, the end has arrived for the legions of the American left wing that have argued relentlessly for more than half a century that the Rosenbergs were victims, framed by a hostile, fear-mongering U.S. government. Since the couple's trial, the left has portrayed them as martyrs for civil liberties, righteous dissenters whose chief crime was to express their constitutionally protected political beliefs. 

Here’s what the trial judge said to the Rosenbergs after their conviction: 

"I consider your crime worse than murder... I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack."

If the Rosenberg and Sacco and Vanzetti stories ring any modern bells for Chicagoans, they should, particularly the Sacco and Vanzetti case. The two are early examples of a political movement that took shape in Chicago over the course of the last five decades: the wrongful conviction movement. 

Consider the parallels. In the late 1960s, a second generation of left-wing terrorists, many of them rooted in Chicago, also unleashed their violence throughout the country, just as did the anarchist group that Sacco and Vanzetti belong to. The most prolific were the Weather Underground, headed by Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers. 

The left soft peddled the violence of their movement and the magnitude of the Weather Underground crimes, just as they did about Sacco and Vanzetti, transforming criminals into cultural heroes.  

There were other terrorist groups from the 1960s who also cloaked their crimes in the rhetoric of social justice and civil rights, also with ties to Chicago.

And there is one other thing that ties these groups together. They were all either represented or supported by a Chicago law firm, The People’s Law Office. 

The PLO was formed in response to a 1969 shoot-out between law enforcement and Black Panther members on the west side. Two Panthers, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, died. The formation of the PLO would prove to be a political powerhouse, the merger of militant inner-city black activists and upper middle class white academics, united in a leftist, revolutionary ideology.  

Immediately, the PLO began claiming the police executed the Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. But framing cops and prosecutors was by the 1970s old hat for the militarized left.

John Perazzo in Front Page Magazine: 

Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver acknowledged years later (in 1986): “We [Panthers] would go out and ambush cops, but if we got caught we would blame it on them and claim innocence.”

Of course, ambushing the police wasn't the only thing the Panthers knew how to do. They also perfected the fine arts of dealing drugs, pimping prostitutes, extorting money, stealing property, beating people senseless, and on at least a dozen occasions, committing homicide. In 1969 alone, Panther members were arrested 348 times for murder, armed robbery, rape, and burglary. How often did they commit these and other serious crimes without getting arrested? That's anybody's guess.

The PLO also represented the FALN, Armed Forces of National Liberation, a terrorist organization calling for the independence of Puerto Rico.

From Discover the Networks: 

…between 1974 and 1983 the group detonated nearly 130 bombs in such strategically selected places as military and government buildings, financial institutions, and corporate headquarters located mainly in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. These bombings were carried out as acts of protest against America’s political, military, financial, and corporate presence in Puerto Rico. All told, FALN bombs killed six people—including the Chilean ambassador to the United States—and wounded at least 80 others.

Despite the fact that the FALN is credited with killing six people and injuring eighty others, their PLO lawyers tried to portray a different image of them to the public. 

From the Tribune in 1995:

Jan Susler takes a deep breath and looks at the reporter long and steady. She's skeptical. She's afraid he'll get it wrong.

"The FALN are really lovely human beings," says Susler, a lawyer representing the group. "They aren't the kinds of people that have horns and a tail. They are intelligent, gifted and tolerant."

It is Susler's job—along with New York Attorney Michael Deutsch—to make the FALN's legal case for a presidential pardon. It's a tough sell, and she knows it. 

Susler, who practices out of The Peoples Law Office near the corner of Division St. and Milwaukee Ave., wrote the 70-page pardon application.

Get what wrong? That they are terrorists? 

There’s more. When a group of youths was arrested in 2011 at the NATO summit, prosecutors claiming they were planning on throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, the PLO stepped forward to represent them. 


The NATO 3 are facing trial together on 11 counts — including conspiracy to commit terrorism, possession of explosives and attempted arson — and face up to 40 years in prison as jury selection begins Tuesday. Each has been held in lieu of $1.5 million bail since the arrests.

Prosecutors allege the three were involved in discussions or preparations for attacks on Chicago police stations, President Barack Obama's re-election headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's home and a Chase bank in the Loop.

The PLO’s claim: 

But the men's attorneys say the case involves "improper political motivations" from prosecutors seeking to justify the city's NATO security spending, and they argue that their clients should never have been charged under Illinois' terrorism statutes. In a court filing, they described the defendants' comments as "idle chatter, laced with bravado and abetted, encouraged and egged on by the undercover police agents."

Supporting terrorist groups, including ones that attacked the police, was one legal venue at the PLO. But the PLO is also a key law firm in the legal attack on cops now known as the wrongful conviction movement, the repeated claim that cops coerced confessions, often knowingly convicting the wrong guy, out of a racist rage.  

That legal attack eventually became focused on a legendary police commander, Jon Burge, whose ability to solve cases was renowned throughout the department. By vilifying Burge, claiming Burge and his men were racist monsters whose crimes were covered up by the rest of the department, the PLO could create a mythology that would serve their purposes of attacking the police, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti and Rosenberg cases had bolstered the radical left by claiming they had been framed for their crimes. 

The PLO’s campaign, therefore, was not foolhardy. The PLO law firm is closely associated with the National Lawyers Guild, a Marxist association of lawyers dating back to 1937. These members, often hardline Stalinists, had learned from cases like Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs the momentum vilifying the criminal justice system could garner for their movement.  

The strategies of the wrongful conviction movement, therefore, have roots deep in American radicalism. 

The success of the wrongful conviction movement in vilifying the police signified a national failure for conservatives. Whereas in the 1960s, when PLO cronies went on their terrorist rampages, Nixon and other conservatives pursued them and fought them in the media, the courtroom, and the classroom. 

Since then, Conservatives have largely stood by for the three decades this deeply leftist movement has unfolded in Chicago, then spread throughout the country. Now the ability of the radical left to unleash their violent sieges on American cities, like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Baltimore, Maryland can be mobilized in a few days, the criminal justice system unable to control them.  

But for the PLO, things didn’t get off to a great start. Twice the PLO failed during the 1980s in a campaign against Burge in civil court. But by relentlessly pressuring the city’s corrupt political machine, they slowly gained in their crusade against Burge, culminating with Burge’s criminal conviction in 2010 for perjury and obstruction of justice. 

But right around the time Burge’s trial was taking shape, journalists were confronted with accusations and evidence that there was a great deal of fraud in the wrongful conviction movement, just as Sinclair had been confronted with the fact that the claims of innocence by Sacco and Vanzetti were lies.  

And, like Sinclair, journalists in Chicago decided to cover up this information rather than admit the myth they had helped create about Burge and his men—then the police department in general—was false. Like Sinclair, Chicago journalists preferred their ideology to their obligations as writers and journalists. 

But they couldn’t predict what would happened next: A retired Chicago journalist, William Crawford, began reviewing the truth about the most influential wrongful conviction case in the state’s history, the exoneration of Anthony Porter in 1982, and found chilling evidence of corruption. 

The release of Anthony Porter in 1999 for a double murder had kicked off much of the wrongful conviction hysteria. Porter’s release from prison was based upon a “confession” to the murders by another man, Alstory Simon, obtained by investigators at Northwestern University’s Innocence Project at the Medill School of Journalism, headed by former professor David Protess. Simon’s confession landed him in prison with a 37-year sentence. 

The Innocence Project was one of the key wrongful conviction advocates in the city, along with the PLO. 

Crawford’s work in uncovering the corruption within Northwestern’s Innocence Project eventually compelled Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to review the Porter case. Alvarez assailed the Northwestern investigation and requested that Simon’s conviction be vacated. Simon walked free from prison. 

Here’s what Alvarez said about Protess and the Northwestern investigation:


Alvarez…did tell reporters that Simon's constitutional rights were compromised by "a series of alarming tactics" that were "unacceptable by law enforcement standards." 

A year later, Judge Thomas Byrne asserted Simon was innocent:  

‘That Simon demonstrated that he is actually innocent of the crimes he was charged and convicted of, he has certainly satisfied his burden…

The implosion of the Porter exoneration followed on the heels of another scandal at Northwestern involving Protess. In 2010, the school initiated an internal investigation into Protess’ conduct following a series of bombshell revelations that he was not acting on the up-and-up in other wrongful conviction investigations. 

Protess was fired. Here’s what the school said about him:

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. 

How could this be? How could a central player in the wrongful conviction movement, a professor whose work at the Innocence Project had freed many convicted killers, be fired from his own university for lying about his cases? How deep did the deception go? How many cases? 

Well, like their leftist comrades decades earlier, the Chicago media, many of whom had graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, kept their mouths shut.  

Here is the main reason why. After Northwestern sprang Anthony Porter from prison by obtaining a “confession” from Alstory Simon, an avalanche of similar wrongful conviction claims emerged from the state’s prisons. Inmates watched a clearly guilty Porter walk free from prison and figured they too could get out. 

And they did. 

In perhaps the most corrupt act in the history of the state, Governor George Ryan pardoned four men on death row without any new evidence emerging of their innocence. Ryan, facing his own 21-count indictment for corruption when he was Secretary of the State, simply let the men go free, citing as he did so, the seminal force the Porter exoneration played in his decision. 


Today, 3 days before I end my term as Governor, I stand before you to explain my frustrations and deep concerns about both the administration and the penalty of death. It is fitting that we are gathered here today at Northwestern University with the students, teachers, lawyers and investigators who first shed light on the sorrowful condition of Illinois' death penalty system. 

One of the men he set free was Madison Hobley, convicted for seven counts of murder in connection with a 1987 arson. Two of the murder victims were Hobley’s wife and infant child. Time and again, Hobley’s supporters in the wrongful conviction movement tried to have his case tossed through the courts. Time and again the courts bolstered his conviction. Then, a crooked governor simply let him go free. 

Throughout this period, the PLO was still waging their war on Jon Burge, trying desperately to get a conviction out of him. 

The Hobley exoneration offered a new opportunity. Hobley sued the city for millions. Burge was deposed in the course of this lawsuit. Burge was asked if he had ever abuse anyone. He denied it in an interrogatory. 

This was all the radical activists in the wrongful conviction movement needed. They cajoled federal prosecutors into using this denial as a basis for a perjury and obstruction of justice charge against Burge. 

Thirty years after they first began making Burge the poster boy for police abuse, they finally had a victory in court. Burge was finally convicted. The PLO was euphoric. The law firm that represented terrorists, was old friends with Weather Underground bombers, had scored their greatest victory. 

But as Burge did his four-and-a-half year sentence in a federal prison, the scandal at Northwestern progressed. Protess was fired. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez set Alstory Simon free. His attorneys filed a $40 million lawsuit.

Hobley Arson Photos

Hobley Arson Photos

The evidence of Madison Hobley’s guilt remained overwhelming. 

And now that a body of evidence of corruption—one that seems to grow every week—is being uncovered within the wrongful conviction movement, no Chicago journalist dares dig into it. 

Hobley Arson

Hobley Arson

For how would it look if it was revealed that the Chicago media supported the fraudulent release of a mass murderer from death row, then that same murderer was used to convict Jon Burge? 

How would the media explain that one? They can’t. But as the evidence of corruption in the wrongful conviction movement, starting with the Porter case, moves into other cases, there will come a time when the city will have to confront the truth about the Hobley case and Jon Burge. Perhaps it will be soon, or perhaps it will be, like the Sacco and Vanzetti case, more than a hundred years. 

As it now, the media presses on with their stories about police corruption despite so much evidence that they are false. Many of them are hung on little more than claiming a detective “once worked with Jon Burge.”

For Chicago journalists, the implosion of the case that led to Jon Burge’s conviction—the mass murder arson case of Madison Hobley—would reveal something too chilling: It would reveal one of the greatest scandals in the history of American journalism. 

And so, despite unfolding evidence every day that the wrongful conviction movement is rife with corruption, corruption as depraved as any allegations against the police, the media has doubled down on their myth about the cops, and Jon Burge and his men in particular, just as Upton Sinclair did. 

It all leads to a chilling possibility for Chicago journalists: Jon Burge and his men never tortured anyone. 

It was all just a myth, manufactured in the propaganda machine of the most Crooked City. 



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