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Inmate freed in landmark US case

October 30, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) — A prisoner whose confession helped free a death row inmate in a case that was instrumental in the campaign to end capital punishment in the state of Illinois was released Thursday after he recanted. A prosecutor said there was powerful evidence that the other man was responsible.

Alstory Simon left the Jacksonville Correctional Center Thursday afternoon. His confession in the high-profile case had gained international attention, in large part because of an investigation of a team of journalism students from Northwestern University that helped secure the 1999 release of Anthony Porter.

Porter had spent 16 years on death row and his supporters maintained he was wrongfully convicted.

Simon was convicted and sentenced to 37 years in prison. But the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office began re-examining Simon’s conviction last year after he recanted his confession. Simon alleged he was coerced into making it by a private investigator, working with the journalism students, who he says promised him he would get an early release and a share of the profits from book and movie deals.

“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,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said at a news conference.

The Porter case played a key part in the drive to end the death penalty in Illinois. The case helped lead former Gov. George Ryan to halt all executions in Illinois. Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in 2003 and 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 and what she called a coerced confession and the deaths of a number of key figures in the case make it 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 points to Porter, including several witnesses who maintain, as they did at the time of the original investigation, that Porter was the gunman.

“As I stand here today, I can’t definitely tell you it was Porter who did this or Simon who did this,” she said.

She said that because of protections against double jeopardy, there is no legal way to retry Porter.

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.

Protess, who retired from Northwestern in 2011 amid questions about his investigative methods, did not respond to phone calls for comment.

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.

Porter did not have a listed telephone number and could not be reached for comment.

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