CROOKED CITY

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Police Report Key In Exoneration Scandal?

It was February, 1999, and the most influential wrongful conviction case in the state’s history was taking shape among a collection of students, a professor, and a private investigator at Northwestern University.

Much of the “evidence” this group had accumulated, including witness statements, would later be attacked in various forums, but in early February, 1999 this so called evidence became the foundation upon which the group was alleging that Anthony Porter, on death row for a 1982 double murder, was, in fact innocent.

Not only was Porter innocent, the group alleged, but another man, Alstory Simon, who then lived in Milwaukee, was guilty of the murders.

As would later become the standard mechanism by which “wrongfully convicted” offenders would garner their release from prison, the media would take up the case and put immense pressure on prosecutors and politicians to release the offender.

And that’s what happened in the Porter case.

Among the first media coverage was a February 2, 1999 article written by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. This article, giving voice to the claim that Porter was innocent and Simon was guilty, must certainly have been among the greatest scoops in Zorn’s career, a story that would eventually undermine the death penalty and precipitate a host of other exonerations, all of them covered extensively by Zorn and the Tribune.

One key incident that took place the day before Zorn’s article came out has not garnered much attention. But now that the Porter exoneration narrative is under so much scrutiny, including a federal lawsuit alleging that Porter’s exoneration was a fraud, perhaps it should. This evidence is a report of a bizarre phone call made to the Milwaukee Police Department on February 1, 1999.

According to a report submitted by a Milwaukee police officer, the caller stated that he was a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. The caller’s name, he said, was Eric Barnes, spelled phonetically, according to the report. The reporter said that Margaret Simon, who currently lived in Milwaukee, had “provided information to Chicago police, possibly implicating her estranged husband, Allen [Alstory] Simon, in a homicide that occurred in that jurisdiction.”

But here’s the problem. At the time this phone call was made, there were no record of a reporter at the Tribune named Eric Barnes. Equally important, there is no record that Simon had been implicated in a murder to the Chicago Police.

Was this a false police report?

Who made the phone call, and why?

No one knows, but the “why” behind the bizarre call is certainly open to speculation. On February 1, the narrative that Porter was innocent and Alstory Simon was guilty of the murders was taking shape. Could this phone call have been made to “gin up” the publicity around the claim that Simon was involved in the murders by getting the police involved?  

Perhaps the question will never be answered.

How ironic, though, that this report would be made the day before Zorn’s groundbreaking column appeared announcing that Porter was innocent and Simon guilty.

In the end, the phone call didn’t really affect the Porter exoneration significantly. The reason is that the following day, February 3, 1999, the day after Zorn’s bombshell column, private investigator Paul Ciolino traveled to Milwaukee and sought out Simon in his apartment. In a bizarre “confession,” Ciolino got Simon to confess in a recorded statement to the murders.

Later on, Simon would allege that this confession was coerced. Simon would claim that Ciolino told Simon that Simon was being sought by the Chicago Police Department for the murders, just as “Eric Barnes,” the unknown caller, had suggested in a phone call to the Milwaukee Police.

Simon’s confession would be blasted on the media airwaves within hours of it being recorded, none of the media personnel seeing the holes in the legitimacy of the confession that would appear decades later when the prosecutor would vacate Simon’s confession and assail the methods of Ciolino and Protess in their “investigation” into the case.

In 2014, from the Chicago Tribune:

"The bottom line is the investigation conducted by Protess and private investigator Ciolino as well as the subsequent legal representation of Mr. Simon were so flawed that it's clear the constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected as our law requires," said Alvarez, who indicated she would have considered obstruction of justice or witness intimidation charges if the statute of limitations hadn't run out.

Nevertheless, the 1999 phone call to the Milwaukee Police is a tantalizing piece of evidence. Finding out who Eric Barnes was and why he made the phone call could go a long way in sorting out the truth behind the Porter case. It might help answer the fundamental question: Was Porter’s exoneration legitimate, or, as Simon's attorneys allege, was it a massive scam perpetuated upon the public?

Back to the Zorn column on Febraury 2, 1999. Given what is now known about the Porter case, Eric Zorn’s column is shocking.

Consider this passage:

The case against Porter was built on the testimony of William Taylor, who told authorities he was in the park that night and had seen Porter fire the fatal shots.

No, it wasn’t. The case against Porter was built upon six witnesses who fingered Porter as either being in the park or actually saw Porter commit the murders. The six witnesses were discovered by detectives in two groups many hours apart. These two groups of witnesses had no opportunity to talk to each other. They provided identical accounts. These two groups of witnesses proved to the detectives and a prosecutor that Porter was clearly the killer.

Grand jury testimony obtained later in February of 1999 revealed these witness statements once again and revealed that the Northwestern investigators never bothered to speak to four of these witnesses.

Zorn could have also learned about these other witnesses had he talked to the detectives, but he didn’t. Despite the fact that Zorn suggested in his column that police coerced a witness statement, a lead detective in the case said he was never contacted by Zorn.

"I got accused of certain things I didn't do," said lead detective, Charles Salvatore. "I got accused of being this ringleader in a great conspiracy to frame Anthony Porter. I got accused of not having probable cause. I got accused of intimidating witnesses, and I got accused of physical abuse, and I didin't do any of this."

Six years later, the statements of these witnesses would emerge in the civil trial against the detectives, alleging they framed Porter. Once again, Zorn would ignore this evidence in his columns, even though the civil trial vindicated the detectives and pointed to Porter’s guilt once again.

Looking back on Zorn’s February 2, 1999 column, it’s difficult to see that Zorn did anything more than contact the Northwestern investigators and hear their side of the story.

What is also mind boggling about the Porter saga is the fact that the Chicago Tribune, which publishes on an almost daily basis an article alleging police misconduct and a “code of silence,” has refused to review its own reporting on the Porter saga, including the writings of Eric Zorn and Tribune reporter Steve Mills, in the face of ever-growing evidence that the paper got the story dead wrong.  

The Tribune’s refusal to do so undermines the paper’s credibility and contributes mightily to the claims of “fake news” that reverberate about the country.

It calls into question the legitimacy of every “wrongful conviction” story the Tribune has published since, up to this very day.

While the Tribune many never find out who Eric Barnes was, isn’t it about time they asked the question?  

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