Murder conviction of Alstory Simon overturned after doubts shed on Protess investigation

Tyler Pager, Breaking News Editor

The Cook County state’s attorney vacated the double-murder conviction of Alstory Simon on Thursday, raising questions about an investigation assisted by former Medill Prof. David Protess.

Protess led the Medill Innocence Project, whose landmark investigation resulted in the release of Anthony Porter from death row.

Porter, who was convicted for killing two teenagers in 1982, was released from prison in 1999. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan cited Porter’s case when he initiated the suspension of the death penalty in the state.

As part of its investigation, the Medill Innocence Project said Simon was guilty of the killings. Simon was later convicted of the crime and sentenced to 37 years in prison.

However, on Thursday, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez released Simon from prison and raised questions about the integrity of Protess and his students’ investigation. The Innocence Project worked with Paul Ciolino, a private investigator, who obtained a video of Simon confessing to the murder.

“This investigation by David Protess and his team involved a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards,” Alvarez said at a news conference Thursday. “They were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon’s constitutionally protected rights.”

Alvarez said she decided to vacate the conviction after a yearlong investigation by her conviction integrity unit, in which her team interviewed more than 100 people. The team was unable to determine who carried out the killings.

Protess could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ciolino said Simon’s confession to killing the two teenagers speaks for itself.

“I believe Anthony Porter was innocent, but no one can deny the state fell far short of meeting the standard of beyond all reasonable doubt in securing a death sentence for him. But for the work we did together with Northwestern and the students, Porter’s life would have been taken,” he said in a statement. “I appreciate the State’s Attorney’s renewed commitment to rooting out wrongful convictions. While misplaced here, I hope her office reviews other cases in the system.”

However, Terry Ekl, Simon’s attorney, said the video “has all of the earmarks and hallmarks of a false confession.” He added that only Protess and Ciolino were responsible for the behavior Alvarez criticized, not the students involved in the project.

“It is my opinion that Protess deliberately and in concert with Paul Ciolino got Simon to make a false confession for the sole attempt of getting Anthony Porter out of jail,” Ekl told The Daily.

Ekl said the next steps for Simon are to integrate him back into society and then decide whether or not to file a civil action lawsuit against Protess, Ciolino, Jack Rimland — Simon’s former lawyer — and NU.

Protess retired from NU on Aug. 31, 2011 amid accusations from the University that he doctored emails and concealed documents from prosecutors. Prosecutors accused Protess and his students of ethical misconduct in the murder conviction investigation of Anthony McKinney.

Medill Prof. Alec Klein now runs the program under the name Medill Justice Project with a new set of established ethical guidelines. Protess currently serves as the director of the Chicago Innocence Project.

Ekl said Protess should not be in charge of any journalism-related program.

“David Protess is not a credible individual,” Ekl said. “He is not a credible journalist. I think he is a self promoter.”

This post was updated at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 1.

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