An anti-death penalty group renowned for sparing wrongly-convicted inmates from execution, often by exposing coerced confessions and fabricated evidence, is being accused of sending an innocent man to prison for 15 years by using the very tactics it condemns.
Alstory Simon was freed last month after serving time for a double murder for which he was convicted based on a coerced confession given to the Medill Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group affiliated with Northwestern University, according to his attorney, Terry Ekl. The group, which was established in 1999 to reinvestigate murder convictions in Illinois, has been credited with freeing 11 innocent men from death row and playing a key role in the state's 2003 decision to suspend executions.
Ekl said the Medill Innocence Project's strategy for getting the death penalty scrapped involved making Anthony Porter its "poster child," and to accomplish that, it sought to pin the 1982 double murder he'd been convicted of on Simon.
“They [Medill Innocence Project] were looking for a poster boy for the anti-death penalty movement,” Simon’s attorney, Terry Ekl, said to FoxNews.com. “They literally had no evidence. They based everything off of one witness who claimed to see Alstory and his wife together with the two victims in the park an hour before they were murdered. It was extremely irresponsible.”
Simon had served 17 years on death row for the murders of teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green in a Chicago park in 1982 when the Medill Innocence Project, a group consisting of journalists, professors, students and private investigators. Members had a tip that Simon was spotted at the crime scene and became convinced he was the killer.
David Protess, a journalism professor at Northwestern who headed the Medill Innocence Project, and two students confronted Simon in 1999, telling him the mother of one of the victims had placed him with Porter at the scene and telling him they were working on a book about the murders, Ekl said.
Simon had denied any involvement in the murders, but the group persisted. Days later, they sent private investigator Paul Ciclino and another man to Simon's home, according to Ekl. Both were armed and flashed Chicago Police Department badges, and urged Simon to confess if he wanted to avoid the death penalty, Ekl said, adding that they promised Simon a light sentence and royalties from book and movie deals. And they showed him video of his ex-wife, Inez Jackson, and another man who proved to be an actor claiming they saw Simon kill the pair, Ekl said.
Simon, who was a drug addict and claimed to be on crack at the time, gave the Innocence Project a videotaped confession. The admission played a key role in the overturning of Porter's conviction and release in 1999, just two days before he was to face death by lethal injection.
Simon, represented by an attorney furnished by the Innocence Project, was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 37 years in prison. He was only spared the death penalty because of the state's moratorium on executions. Simon was only released on Oct. 30, after the State’s Attorney for Cook County, Anita Alvarez, conducted a yearlong investigation that determined Simon's confession was false. Her office vacated the charges against him and a judge ordered the immediate release of Simon, who is now 64.
Alvarez said the review raised serious questions about the integrity of the Medill Innocence Project's reinvestigation as well as ethical questions about Simon’s legal representation.
“At the end of the day and in the best interests 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.
Officials at the Medill Innocence Project, now known as the Medill Justice Project, did not return calls for comment. The group is not affiliated with the New York-based Innocence Project, which does similar work, and Protess, who was suspended from the school in 2011 over a separate incident, has since left to form the Chicago Innocence Project. He also did not return calls for comment.
But Ciolino maintains that Simon committed the crime.
“Mr. Simon confessed to a Milwaukee TV reporter, his own lawyer and others [after] he confessed to me,” Ciolino said in a statement provided to FoxNews.com. “You explain that.”
Ciolino said the effort he took part in spared Porter the death penalty, and stood by the project's findings.
“No one should be in prison if the state did not meet its burden of proof,” he said in the statement. “I believe Anthony Porter was innocent, but no one can deny the state fell far short of meeting the standard of beyond all reasonable doubt in securing a death sentence for him. But for the work we did together with Northwestern and the students, Porter's life would have been taken.”
But Ekl believes Porter was the killer.
“No one ever wanted to challenge Ciolino,” he told FoxNews.com, adding that Alvarez's probe began only after renewed interest sparked by a pending movie about the case.
“Anthony Porter was a renowned thug,” Ekl said. “He had a horrific criminal history and even had a warrant out for his arrest for a murder that happened a week earlier.
“He committed these murders and got away with it.”
Simon is free, but bitter, suffering health problems and having trouble adjusting to life outside of prison.
“We are trying to help him transition,” he said. “We’re really taking care of him now and trying to assist him as best as we can.”
His case will be the subject of a film “A Murder in the Park” which premieres in New York next week. Ekl said Simon is weighing his legal options.
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych