By Don Babwin and Jason Keyser
CHICAGO — A prisoner whose confession helped free a death row inmate in a case that was instrumental to ending capital punishment in Illinois was released Thursday after he recanted, and a prosecutor said there was powerful evidence that the other man was responsible.
Alstory Simon’s confession gained international attention in 1999, largely because of an investigation by a journalism professor and a team of students from Northwestern University that helped secure Anthony Porter’s release just days before he was to be executed.
He had spent 16 years on death row for slayings he and his supporters maintained he did not commit.
Because of constitutional protections against double jeopardy, there is no legal way to retry Porter.
Simon, wearing a grey hoodie and jeans, told reporters outside Jacksonville Correctional Center that he was angry.
“I’m not angry at the system. I’m angry at the people who did what they did to me,” he said, crying as he told reporters that his mother had died while he was behind bars.
Simon was convicted and sentenced to 37 years in prison. But the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office began re-examining his conviction last year after his attorney presented evidence that he had been threatened with the death penalty and coerced into confessing with promises that he would get an early release and share in the profits from book and movie deals.
And, said Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, he was tricked by a private investigator who stormed into his home and showed him a videotape of a man who said he had seen Simon pull the trigger. The man turned out to be an actor.
“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,” Alvarez said.
The Porter case helped lead former Gov. George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in 2003, and he cleared death row by commuting the death sentences of more than 150 inmates to life in prison. Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in 2011.
Alvarez did not say whether she believed Simon is, in fact, innocent, but she said there were so many problems with the case — including what she called a coerced confession and the deaths of a number of key figures — that it is impossible to determine exactly what happened on the morning of Aug. 15, 1982, when two people were shot to death as they sat in a park on Chicago’s South Side.
She also said there remains powerful evidence that Porter was the gunman, including several witnesses who still maintain their original statements.
“As I stand here today, I can’t definitely tell you it was Porter who did this or Simon who did this,” she said.
Alvarez said the “tactics and antics” of the investigator, Paul Ciolino, and former Northwestern journalism professor David Protess could have added up to criminal charges of obstruction of justice and intimidation of a witness at the time, but that it is now impossible to file charges because the statute of limitations has run out.
Ciolino, who like Protess has denied acting improperly, released a statement that emphasized that Simon confessed multiple times, including to a TV reporter and his own lawyer.
“You explain that,” Ciolino said. Nonetheless, he added, no one should be in prison if the state did not meet its burden of proof. Thursday’s release was just the latest chapter in Porter’s long history with the justice system.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, before he was charged in the 1982 slayings, he was charged in a 1976 shooting that left one man dead and another injured, but charges were ultimately dismissed.
After his release from prison, he had a number of run-ins with the law, including an arrest in 2011 on a felony theft charge and a one-year prison sentence the next year after he pleaded guilty, according to the state’s attorney’s office.