By: Caitlin Brown
David Protess’ legacy is as lasting as it is quiet; the presence of his impact is often-felt but seldom acknowledged.
And for good reason. The story about how Cook County abandoned the death penalty unfolds like a poorly-constructed game of Clue: gunshots in the night, two victims, two suspects. A Northwestern journalism professor positioned these facts against each other like board pieces and left his students to uncover the scene, the killer, and the crime.
The only problem: while the reality of the murders remains as undefined as ever, even thirty years removed, the weighty impact of the crime is still felt on Cook County’s criminal justice system.
On a hot summer night in 1982, shots rang through the darkness as teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green were murdered in Washington Park. Evidence pointed to Anthony Porter as the likely culprit (he was found fleeing the scene of the crime). He was ultimately tried, convicted, and sentenced to capital punishment, but two days before Porter was scheduled to face the gurney, a Northwestern journalism professor, David Protess, took up the case and implored the public to believe Porter’s long-held claims of innocence. Joining the forces of his students with private investigator Paul Ciolino, Protess set out to prove to Cook County–and the world–that the wrong man sat in prison, awaiting his execution.
If this all sounds very noble, I’ll let you know: those ethical waters are more than a little muddied. Protess’ efforts did little for the victims’ families, for the image of justice in Cook County, and for Alstory Simon, the man who Protess’ team pried a false confession from and who took Porter’s place in prison. While Protess presented a strong case for Porter’s innocence at the time, further investigation into the crime has revealed incriminating details not only about Porter, but about Protess’ innocence project in its entirety. Murder in the Park, a documentary directed by Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber, presents an equally compelling case from the defense’s point of view, claiming that Simon’s ex-girlfriend had been bribed into providing false testimony, Simon had been forcefully pressured into a false confession, and that Porter was, indeed, the true killer.
Now, both Porter and Simon have been exonerated for the crimes each after sitting at least a decade in prison. The whole debacle served as a major component in Cook County’s eventual abandonment of the death penalty–although few in Chicago politics are willing to admit that. After Porter’s supposed wrongful conviction made headlines in the nineties, then-Governor George Ryan worked to eliminate capital punishment in Illinois by imposing a moratorium on executions and commuting sentences. Illinois formally abolished the death penalty in 2011, around the time that Simon pushed to be released for his wrongful conviction. Given the embarrassing handling of the Porter-Simon case by Cook County, which imprisoned and then exonerated both murder suspects, the history of the death of capital punishment in Illinois is often undiscussed.
In June of this year, Northwestern University agreed to a legal settlement with Simon. However, many writers have pointed out the all this move amounts to is an easy but unforgivable capitulation on the part of the university. Earlier this year, Eric Zorn wrote a Chicago Tribune article about the topic, discussing how the university’s settlement implicates all of the efforts of other Northwestern faculty who have worked tirelessly to exonerate many of the wrongly convicted.
It’s unlikely that the settlement will truly end the case–for one, Ciolino is not bound to the terms of the legal agreement. Furthermore, the murderer–whether Porter or Simon or some other entity–remains at large.
So, the legacy of David Protess and his project are important for Chicagoans to be aware of, since its effects are still being felt in the ways that Cook County reacts to wrongful conviction charges, the ways that ethical limitations restricting how other, similar Innocence Projects are conducted are decided, and the ways that journalists envision their role as watchdogs of the criminal justice system.