Former prosecutor Anita Alvarez tossed murder case to settle score, suit says

Lawsuit: A cabal of the former state's attorney, a police union official, lawyers and others have falsely portrayed a murder conviction to attack the movement to expose wrongful convictions.

A defense investigator for former death row inmate Anthony Porter contends in a newly-filed lawsuit that former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez defamed him as part of a broad scheme to undermine efforts to expose wrongful convictions.

The lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court by Paul Ciolino states that Alvarez, a film company, and seven other defendants joined forces to falsely accuse him, Northwestern University and former professor David Protess of framing a suspect as “payback…for their efforts and success at revealing the injustices of the Illinois criminal justice system and their work toward abolition of the death penalty.”

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in one of the most controversial of legal cases, involving claims by both opponents and proponents of the death penalty that the other side had falsely portrayed what happened in a murder case to further their political positions. The case has caused convictions to be overturned, a renowned professor to resign, and was a factor in the re-election loss of Alvarez.

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Anthony Porter

Photo courtesy of Loren Santow

Anthony Porter

At issue is the examination by a Northwestern University journalism school project into the 1982 deaths of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago. Porter had been identified by an eyewitness, and was convicted and sentenced to die at the time the Medill Innocence Project took on the case in 1999.

Students in the project reinvestigated the case with the help and guidance of journalism professor David Protess as well as Ciolino.

Ciolino, with an associate, traveled to Wisconsin to question another possible suspect named Alstory Simon. Simon broke down and provided a videotaped statement admitting to the shooting but contending it was self-defense. Ciolino gave Simon the names of possible attorneys to represent him; one was defense attorney Jack Rimland.

The admission by Simon led to the exoneration of Porter; a year later, then-Gov. George Ryan cited the case of Porter as he commuted all death sentences in Illinois. Ryan said in a speech in 2003 announcing his decision that Porter’s case, along with subsequent groundbreaking reporting by The Chicago Tribune, prompted him to ask aides: “How does this happen?” But nobody, he said, could explain it.

After confessing on the video made by Ciolino, Simon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 37 years in prison, of which he was expected to serve roughly half. While in prison, Simon wrote his lawyer, Rimland, a letter thanking him for saving Simon’s life, and asked him to forward a letter of apology to Porter. The next month he also took part in a television interview in which he confessed again, saying, “I was not going to let this man die for something that he did not do.”

But by July, 2001 — two years after he first recanted — Simon filed a post-conviction petition, contending that Ciolino had coerced his confession.

Ciolino’s new lawsuit contends that investigator James Delorto, along with Delorto’s business partner, helped Simon “develop a false claim” that Ciolino had coerced a false confession.

Anita Alvarez

Former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez

Meanwhile, Alvarez, as state’s attorney, had become engaged in what the lawsuit describes as a “war” with Northwestern over Protess’ involvement in a series of cases that had challenged convictions secured by her office. “Fairly or not,” Ciolino’s lawsuit states, “Alvarez blamed Northwestern for being left a national laughing stock.”

Alvarez could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In 2011, she won a court order in a post-conviction hearing directing that Protess and his students turn over their notes and other records taken during their research – contending they were acting as advocates, not journalists.

As part of that legal dispute, the Center on Wrongful Convictions legal director, Karen Daniel, produced in court memorandums provided by Protess that the journalism professor had said did not exist. The discovery caused Protess, who was revered, to retire as professor.

Ciolino’s lawsuit contends that Simon’s attorneys saw “an opportunity to form an alliance with Alvarez,” and asked her in 2013, along with an identical request from the police union, to review Simon’s conviction, contending his confession was coerced.

The following year, she announced that she was moving to overturn the charges against Simon, saying, “In the best interest of justice, we could reach no other conclusion but that the investigation of this case has been so deeply corroded and corrupted that we can no longer maintain the legitimacy of this conviction.” After 15 years in custody, Simon was freed.

Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that she did so despite a 28-page memo from two veteran prosecutors that concluded their review did not justify overturning Simon’s conviction. “Simon supporters, in their zeal to characterize Simon as innocent of these crimes, have mischaracterized the evidence implicating Porter in these crimes as overwhelming,” the memo concluded.

In 2015, Simon filed a lawsuit against Northwestern, Protess and Ciolino and his former attorney, Rimland, who represented him in his guilty plea, contending they had coerced him into falsely pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit.

That lawsuit remains pending.

Later that year, “A Murder in the Park,” a film by attorney Andrew Hale and Whole Truth Films, premiered, contending Simon had been the victim of a conspiracy by Protess, Northwestern and Ciolino to wrongly frame Simon to make Porter a “‘poster boy’ for the bid to end executions in Illinois,” according to Ciolino’s lawsuit.

In his lawsuit, Ciolino contends the false portrayal by the defendants “destroyed his career.”

Injustice Watch co-director Rick Tulsky joined Medill’s faculty in 2011, when David Protess already was on leave, and remained until 2015. They never overlapped, and their programs were separate.

Injustice Watch co-dierctor Rob Warden worked with Protess at Chicago Lawyer, and later on cases after Warden co-founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Warden had no role in reporting or editing this article.