Court: Investigator who aided high-profile exoneration can proceed with defamation case

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An Illinois Appellate Court panel on Monday reinstated a lawsuit brought by a private investigator who contended he was defamed by a lawyers, a journalist, and a police union official, among others, who have contended that he framed an innocent man of murder.

At issue are statements accusing the investigator, Paul Ciolino, of improperly coercing a man named Alstory Simon into confessing that he had committed the murder of a couple in Washington Park in 1982 for which another man, Anthony Porter, had been convicted and sentenced to die.

It was, as the court opinion written by Appellate Judge John C. Griffin noted, “one of the most famous murder cases in the history of our state. It is no real surprise that the events surrounding the case have spurred a movie, a book, and other media attention.”

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Simon’s confession to Ciolino helped prompt then-governor George Ryan to declare a moratorium on the death penalty. But it also would lead, ultimately, to the departure of one of the most recognized professors, David Protess, from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, over a cloud that was raised questioning the tactics Protess, as director of the Medill Innocence Project, used to help exonerate Porter and many others.

Ultimately, then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said that her own reexamination convinced her that Simon had been wrongly coerced into confessing by the tactics of Protess and Ciolino, an investigator who assisted Protess in reexamining cases. Like Porter, Simon too was then exonerated, leaving a running dispute over whether Porter or Simon was the actual killer.

Investigator Paul Ciolino with his attorneys, Jennifer Bonjean and Ashley Cohen

A book Justice Perverted, and a documentary, “A Murder in the Park,” then were produced that supported the view that Simon had been framed.

The court’s ruling, joined by Appellate Judges Daniel J. Pierce and Carl A. Walker, restored Ciolino’s lawsuit against eight defendants including Simon, the attorneys who represented him, the book author, the documentary producer, and Martin Preib, 2nd Vice President of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police who has championed Simon’s cause. They overturned Cook County Circuit Judge Christopher E. Lawler’s decision last year ruling the lawsuit had not been filed in a timely manner.

The appeals court ruled that Ciolino had acted in a timely way once he learned of the statements by all the defendants except Alvarez. The judges ruled that Ciolino was late in suing over statements by Alvarez — taken from her press conference on the day she dropped charges in 2014 — and dismissed his claims against her.

After his conviction was overturned,  Simon sued Northwestern, Protess, Ciolino and the attorney who represented him during the guilty plea, saying they wrongly forced him to confess to a crime he said he did not commit. Northwestern and Protess settled the case; but Ciolino counter-sued, contending that Simon’s lawsuit was “built on lies and fiction.” He said he intends to prove in the lawsuit that the movement on Simon’s behalf was “an effort to kill the Innocence Project and get the death penalty back. I was an easy target.”

Simon lived in Milwaukee in 1999 when Ciolino arrived at his door, armed with evidence that Simon and not Porter had shot to death Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green. Simon contended that Ciolino used coercive tactics to convince him to falsely confess that he actually was the killer, including playing a video of an actor saying he was a witness to the shooting and naming Simon as the murderer.

Represented by a lawyer named Jack Rimland, who shared an office with Ciolino, Simon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 37-years in prison. At the sentencing hearing he apologized to the victim’s families; later, in custody, he wrote letters apologizing for the murder to Porter, among others.

But not everyone accepted Simon’s guilt, and attorneys Terry Ekl and James Sotos, attorneys who have often represented police officers accused of misconduct cases, took on Simon’s representation. Simon recanted his confession, saying that Ciolino and Protess had made threats and promises of money if he pleaded guilty.

Sotos and Ekl, among the defendants, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Simon’s recantation led to a reinvestigation of the case by then-State’s Attorney Alvarez, who ultimately asked the court to overturn Simon’s conviction. She called the tactics used by Ciolino and Protess “coercive” and “potentially in violation of Mr. Simon’s constitutional rights.”

The appellate court decision ruled that including Alvarez’s comments in the later documentary did not extend the statute of limitations.

“Despite that the case reads like a movie script,” the opinion states, “there has been no fairytale ending for anyone involved.”