A Narrative Without Moral

Which is the bigger journalistic sin – a media celebrity embellishing a war story to appear more heroic, or a journalism professor lying to free a murderer?

Without a doubt, the first receives a lot more publicity. Who hasn’t heard about Brian Williams?

But how many people know what David Protess did? If you haven’t heard of him, you have most likely heard of his “Innocence Project” at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism in Chicago.

For more than two decades, Protess, an anti-death penalty advocate and journalism professor, used his students to revisit selected Death Penalty cases, and prison inmates who claimed innocence. An early success led to an “exoneration” and then another, and then another.

The publicity from one case fed the next. The media loved it. Here was one of their own saving the day. Even better for the made-for-Hollywood story was that Protess and most of his students were white. The men they were saving from Death Row and prison sentences were black. Some of these inmates received multi-million dollar payouts in wrongful-conviction lawsuits.

In the past year, the Protess legend has unraveled. You probably haven’t heard much about it, though, unless you live in Chicago. Unfortunately, it’s not just a Chicago story.

Protess’ sins have infected the American criminal justice system, which wasn’t perfect to begin with (which criminal justice system on Earth is?). But Protess has made it increasingly difficult to tell the guilty from the innocent, lies from the truth.

Even worse, he has made the truth irrelevant. What a legacy for a journalist.

“Was a Killer Set Free?” shouted the headline from the Chicago Sun-Times on April 19, 2014 when it became apparent that a double murderer named Anthony Porter, who killed two teenagers in Chicago’s Washington Park, had been unjustly freed.

Protess could rationalize his unethical methods, which led prosecutors to free Porter, by telling himself that he was serving a higher good – abolishing the death penalty.

What have his lies brought to inner-city neighborhoods, where people live in fear of men like Anthony Porter? It’s a question the media don’t explore. Reporters and editors from major newspapers and public broadcasting stations don’t live with neighbors like Porter.

Thanks to Protess, Anthony Porter, a member of the Black Gangster Disciples, was cast as a victim. Porter had a reputation for beating and robbing elderly people; in the weeks leading up to the double murder of two teenagers, he shot a man over a barking dog and fired a gun at police.

Look at the photo of Protess in the arms of Porter when the killer was freed from prison. Look at the glee. At one point in his glorious pursuit of justice, Protess said he hoped that Harrison Ford would play him in the movie.

Well, a documentary was recently released called “Murder in the Park.” It’s probably not what Protess had in mind.

The typical Protess/Medill Innocence Project narrative could have been inspired by the old Perry Mason TV show. Protess, of course, plays Perry. At the last minute, as the condemned man is strapped down, the real killer is found – courtesy of Protess and (sometimes, but not always) attractive Northwestern coeds, who have managed to persuade the real killer to confess 10-plus years after the crime.

If the idealistic college students playing good cop couldn’t get a confession, Protess had a private investigator named Paul Ciolini willing to play the bad cop.

That’s what happened in the Porter case. A man named Alstory Simon was bullied into signing a confession that he killed teenagers, Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green, who were in Chicago’s Washington Park on a hot August night. Two eyewitnesses saw Porter shoot the young couple, and four more eyewitnesses put Porter at the scene at the time of the shooting. One witness had been robbed at gunpoint by Porter shortly before the shooting.

Protess, Ciolini and the Northwestern students ignored five of those witnesses and zeroed in on one, a young man named William Taylor, who had initially not wanted to cooperate with police: He was afraid Porter would hurt his grandmother.

After police located the other witnesses, Taylor agreed to testify.

Years later, as Porter’s execution was imminent and then-Gov. George Ryan was looking for reasons to justify his opposition to the death penalty, Taylor was visited by Ciolini and a Northwestern student named Tom McCann. Taylor did not want to help them; he didn’t have a problem with Porter’s execution.

McCann and Protess admitted during a grand jury investigation into the Medill Innocence Project’s tactics that they didn’t contact any  other witnesses — only Taylor.

McCann testified that he had been coached by Protess in good cop/bad cop investigative techniques and that when visiting Taylor he played good cop, while Ciolini played bad cop.

The grand jury transcript, excerpted in Martin Preib’s excellent book, “Crooked City,” describes how Ciolini insisted to Taylor that Porter was an innocent victim of the police. Ciolini badgered Taylor until the man signed an affidavit saying he was retracting his long-ago testimony that he witnessed Porter shoot the teenagers.

A few days later, Protess and Ciolini visited Taylor, who had begged to be left alone. This time they took him out for dinner and much wine and handed him still another document to sign. Later, Protess drove Taylor to a news studio to be interviewed about his retraction.

It didn’t stop there. For the narrative to play out, Protess needed someone else to confess to the crime. That was Alstory Simon’s role. His name popped up in documents because his wife was a friend of one of the victims.

A crack addict, Simon was visited by a Northwestern team. He and his estranged wife (also a drug addict) were promised money and a movie deal. The professor would make sure Simon only got a short prison sentence. With a settlement, he would never have to work again.

Read Preib’s “Crooked City” book and blog for the twists and turns in this sordid tale. (“Preib’s is a voice that has almost never been heard in American writing,” said Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. Preib is a Chicago cop who can write.)

Simon was released from prison five months ago after being locked up for 15 years. His estranged wife made a death-bed confession admitting she had lied when she said her husband killed the kids in the park. She said Protess had promised her money from book and movie deals and promised to help get her son out of prison.

Porter’s guilt is no longer in doubt except to Protess and his fans. Porter couldn’t even hit the wrongful-conviction jackpot. A civil jury awarded him nothing in a $24 million lawsuit he filed for being “wrongfully” imprisoned. Jurors believed he was guilty.

Simon has now filed a $40 million lawsuit against Northwestern University. Protess left the university under allegations that he misled the school in still another case.

Protess also left a huge question: Were all of his dozen exonerated inmates really innocent?

I wish I could ask Carol Schmal which men raped her seven times before she was shot in the head. She and her fiancé, Larry Lionberg, ended up as bit players in one of Protess’ early success stories – the “Ford Heights Four.”

Four black men had been convicted in 1978 of raping and murdering a young white couple in an area called Ford Heights. Eighteen years later, with a witness recantation and DNA testing available, the four were exonerated.

This case captured my attention when it broke in 1996 because one of Protess’ students, Laura Sullivan, had been an intern at the Southern California newspaper where I worked. It was a compelling story.

In the popular narrative at the time, Protess and his white coeds ventured into a black war zone on Chicago’s South Side, armed with nothing but sodas and chips, to get a true confession from a black woman named Paula Gray. She admitted she had lied about what she had seen and said the police forced her to lie. It was her lie that sent the Ford Heights Four to prison.

More significant (and certainly more trustworthy than a liar) was the students’ discovery of a police officer’s notes while sorting through a dozen boxes of case files. The notes suggested four other suspects were responsible. The reporting was solid.

With the help of a black, private detective named Rene Brown (who later complained that Protess had left him out of the publicity, no doubt because he marred the narrative of a professor and coeds riding to the rescue), three of the four suspects were found and convicted. The fourth suspect had died of a drug overdose.

Since the DNA evidence proved their semen was not inside Schmal, the Ford Heights Four were released from prison. Later, each was awarded more than $8 million.

The revelations now about Protess’ techniques, though, make me wonder: Just because there was no DNA linking the Ford Heights Four, were all of them completely innocent? Could some of them have participated in the crime but not left their semen?

One of the first witnesses, a neighbor named Charles McRaney, testified that he saw six to eight people – including three of the four men later exonerated – enter the abandoned townhouse where Schmal was later found. According to the Chicago Tribune, his testimony was disregarded when the case was revisited because prosecutors had helped him find a job.

Knowing what has now been revealed about Protess’ methods, there may have been more legitimacy to McRaney’s testimony. According to Prieb’s “Crooked City,” McRaney was visited by Ciolino, Protess’ investigator, who offered him a movie contract and money in exchange for recanting his earlier testimony.

Ira Johnson, one of the men subsequently convicted in the rape and murder of Schmal, told Sullivan and her classmate Stacey Delo what really happened the night of the crime. According to this account, written by Sullivan in The (Baltimore) Sun, Johnson, his brother and two other guys pulled into a gas station intending to rob it. Larry Lionberg was working the cash register, and his fiancée Carol Schmal had brought him some yogurt.

Johnson said his brother “liked the girl” so he put a gun to her head. She and Lionberg were driven to an abandoned townhouse, where he was forced to watch them repeatedly rape his fiancée. Later Schmal and Lionberg were shot in the head. (If four white men kidnapped a black couple and forced the man to watch his fiancée being raped, would the media explore that element as a race-based hate crime? That’s a question you won’t likely find asked by the media.)

I keep coming back to the number seven. That’s how many times Schmal was raped, according to early archived news stories. Seven. Did some of the men rape her more than once? Could other men have participated and not left DNA behind?

Or could it be that the men McCraney saw entering the abandoned townhouse (who were later exonerated) were there to watch or check out the goods?

By now, though, the facts about Schmal’s last night have been massaged away. In more recent news stories, she was simply “raped.”

How many of Protess’ “innocents” were still culpable in some way?

Even Dennis Williams, one of the exonerated Ford Heights Four, told the Chicago Sun-Times that when police contacted him as he watched one of the bodies being removed, “I had an attitude back then. They wanted to see what I had in the trunk, so everything I had in that trunk, I didn’t lay it on the ground. I threw it on the ground.”

Or is the concept of innocence meaningless in a community so amoral that friends readily give false testimony against friends – and then blame the cops?

In an exuberant ceremony at Northwestern University, then-Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, granted a pardon to Paula Gray, whose lies under oath put the original Ford Heights Four in prison (she had previously been convicted of perjury). Ryan hugged her. Also on hand was Williams, whom she helped put in prison. He hugged her, too.

There’s no money to be made off of condemning liars like Gray. Mistakes by police and prosecutors, though, can be career- and money-makers for Protess, his protégés and the law firms that feed off wrongful conviction settlements.

It’s like that circle Billy Preston sang about.

“I’ve got a story, ain’t got no moral/Let the bad guy win every once in a while.”

About 20 years after he wrote those lines, Preston pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Mexican day laborer. The singer caught a break in the circle of justice and was sentenced to house arrest.

If Protess and his protégés have their way, the bad guys will win a lot more than once in a while.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


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