Wrongful conviction settlements are big business, but they are not always sensible. Chicago settles millions of dollars in cases where convicted offenders claim they were wrongfully convicted.
For a number of law firms, suing the city over wrongful convictions has become a kind of cottage industry. Inmates claim they were tortured and coerced into confessing. The offenders are freed from prison. Attorneys quickly initiate civil lawsuits against the city. Many people assume that a settlement signifies the police were culpable and had something to hide.
But this is not the truth in several key wrongful conviction cases, none more so than the Anthony Porter case, a double murder in 1982 in Washington Park on the South Side.
“I got accused of certain things I didn’t do,” says Charles Salvatore, a lead detective in the Porter case. “I got accused of being this ringleader in a great conspiracy to frame Anthony Porter. I got accused of not having probable cause. I got accused of intimidating witnesses and I got accused of physical abuse, and I didn’t do any of this.”
In this case and many others, cops long for the opportunity to explain their investigation in civil court, even if accused of torture and coercion. Detectives want to retain their good name, and prevent the city from paying millions to murderers. The decision to settle, though, is out of the detectives’ hands.
When, in 1999, former Governor George Ryan watched news coverage of Anthony Porter’s alleged wrongful conviction by a Northwestern University investigation, it compelled him to place a moratorium on the death penalty (which stayed until Governor Quinn later abolished the death penalty). The Porter case continues to set the precedent for wrongful conviction cases in Illinois.
As a police officer currently employed by the City of Chicago, I have a unique perspective on wrongful conviction cases. Although I had no involvement with the Anthony Porter case, learning about its three-decade history has made me question the assumptions about wrongful convictions.
Most of the seminal cases, like Anthony Porter’s, took place long before I became a cop. In researching them, I interviewed retired federal agents, lawyers and journalists, all of whom knew the case in detail. They provided me with the transcripts of the legal proceedings, police documents and media articles pertaining to the case. I also interviewed central witnesses on my own, filming many of them.
In contacting the detectives and hearing their stories, I never met one involved in a wrongful conviction who didn’t want his case to go to civil trial. Each one stood by his investigation.
Chicago Police Detectives Charles Salvatore and Dennis Gray worked the third watch on August 15, 1982, meaning they started in the afternoon. They joined a case already in progress. The murders of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green occurred just after midnight. Hillard and Green, a couple engaged to be married, were gunned down in the bleachers next to the public pool at Washington Park. Green had been shot three times, once in the hand and twice in the neck. Hillard had been shot in the head.
Though mortally wounded, Green staggered out of the park until she ran into two officers on a traffic stop. They gathered her into another police car. She was rushed to the hospital, but died.
Two men at the pool, Henry Williams and William Taylor, carried Hillard, who was also wounded and fated to die, down the bleachers. While they were carrying Hillard, the detectives heard Taylor and Williams whisper Porter’s name. The detectives, who had worked on many robberies, instantly knew who they were talking about. Porter was an infamous stick-up man. This was an important moment in the investigation. No one was even questioned and witnesses were naming Porter, the first sign of an open-and-shut case.
One of the witnesses, William Taylor, was initially too afraid of Porter and his gang to say that he had seen Porter commit the crime, but the detectives convinced him to come clean after they brought Taylor to his grandmother’s home to see that she was okay and bought him dinner.
Taylor told the detectives he saw Porter shoot Hillard, firing from his left hand, then flee the park, running so closely Taylor could see Porter’s revolver. Porter robbed the other witness, Henry Williams, at gunpoint in the park shortly before the shooting at the pool
Williams’ statement put Porter at the park, armed and willing to commit robberies. A police officer stopped Porter running in the park right after the shooting, but the cop let Porter go because he didn’t find a gun. The gun was never found.
In murder cases, prosecutors sign arrest warrants, not the cops. When cops bring their evidence to the prosecutors to get the warrant, there is often great tension because the detectives believe they have sufficient evidence to proceed, but the prosecutors want more. This is a built-in safeguard in the criminal justice system, providing an instant independent review of the case before charges are made. This was true in the Porter case.
The prosecutor who arrived at the area station was David Kerstein, a cautious attorney with high requirements for probable cause. Sure enough, Kerstein was unwilling to sign the warrant. His refusal frustrated the detectives. Their frustration was not without reason. They had two solid witnesses, one who actually saw Porter shoot Green and Hillard, and another who was robbed at gunpoint by Porter near the scene of the murder.
Porter had allegedly been on a violent crime spree in the weeks before the shooting. He shot one man in the head over a barking dog. The victim miraculously survived with only a graze wound. A warrant was issued for Porter’s arrest. A week later, Porter fired a gun at two other cops pursuing him for the first shooting. The cops gave chase but lost him. Porter was also a suspect in at least nine other armed robberies.
Porter seemed like a monster roaming the streets. Nevertheless, the prosecutor Kerstein still had some reservations about the reliability of the witnesses, partly because they had been drinking that night, so he suggested to detectives Salvatore and Gray that they all go back through the Washington Park crime scene with witnesses Taylor and Williams. The detectives agreed. They had planned on returning to the park anyway to make sure their reports were accurate as to the layout of the crime scene.
Then the most crucial event in the entire case occurred. Taylor and Williams walked the two detectives and the prosecutor through the entire homicide scene. As they prepared to leave, Gray pointed out to Salvatore that there were several people in the area of the pool and they should canvass them to see if they knew anything about the murder. Gray walked over to the group. Moments later he called over detective Salvatore. Kerstein followed.
“Listen to this,” Gray told Salvatore.
A man named Kenneth Edwards told the detectives and Kerstein he was in the pool area at the time of the shooting. He heard the shots. He looked up and saw a man with a gun in his left hand, extended, firing.
Edwards said he knew Porter from the neighborhood and it was Porter doing the shooting. Edwards was standing with another man, Eugene Beckwith. Beckwith told the detectives he too saw the shooting, though he didn’t see that the shooter was Porter. He did, however, observe Porter in the park a little while earlier.
Edwards and Beckwith told the detectives they were with two other men, Mark Senior and Michael Woodfork, both of whom had also witnessed at least some part of the shooting and who put Porter in the pool area that night.
That brought a total of six witnesses, two of whom were eyewitnesses. All the statements provided by both groups of witnesses agreed, even on slight details. Porter fired from the left hand. They saw Porter standing over the victims. They saw the victim stumble down the stairs and out of the park, holding her neck.
Porter went on trial for the double homicide. His one alibi witness, who claimed Porter wasn’t in the park that night, fell apart under cross-examination. Only Taylor and Williams, the two witnesses discovered right after the shooting, testified in the trial. Porter was found guilty, and in a sentencing hearing where Porter’s extremely violent gang and criminal history was played out, he was sentenced to death. His cruelty and indifference to life made him a poster child for the death penalty.
The detectives awoke sixteen years after the murders, in 1999, to hear professor David Protess and his journalism students at Northwestern University’s Innocence Project announce that Anthony Porter was, in fact, innocent of the murders.
Protess also claimed that another man, one Alstory Simon, was the true killer. The Northwestern claims were based in large part upon a confession that a Northwestern student investigation team had obtained from Simon with the help of a private investigator. This videotaped confession became the foundation of the claims that would free Porter and send Simon to jail.
Simon’s confession was obtained by private investigator Paul Ciolino, who was working with Northwestern’s Innocence Project journalism students. Ciolino drove up to Simon’s home in Milwaukee on a cold February morning in 1999, some sixteen years after the murders. Without ever having before met Simon, Ciolino was able to leave Simon’s apartment later that day with a taped confession to the murders. Ciolino boasted to the media that he “bull rushed” a confession out of Simon by showing him a video of a witness who saw him commit the murders in the park.
The tape was a ruse; the witness an actor. (One wonders what would happen to a murder confession obtained by a Chicago detective who boasted he “bull rushed” it out of the suspect.) It was an amazing feat of persuasion by Ciolino, getting a man he had never met before to confess to a double homicide that had already been solved.
One detail of Simon’s confession shocked police officers. Ciolino admitted that Simon, at one point during Ciolino’s visit to his apartment, requested a lawyer. No problem, Ciolino told Simon. Then Ciolino called Chicago and obtained the services of attorney Jack Rimland, a friend of Ciolino, to represent Simon. To any police officer, such a tactic would immediately undermine the credibility of any evidence obtained from this interview. One cannot get an attorney for a person they are accusing of murder.
This move was more than enough to cast doubt on the authenticity of the confession. A detective who used such tactics would have the case thrown out immediately and would probably face penalties and perhaps even indictment. The moment Simon requested a lawyer the entire interaction should have ended.
But the opposite happened. Rimland traveled that day to Milwaukee and advised Simon to confess. What lawyer would advise their client to confess to a murder before he even spoke to his client or looked at the evidence? Rimland continued to encourage Simon to confess all the way until Simon was sentenced for the murders six months later, even though there was a mountain of evidence, including at least six witnesses, who still fingered Porter for the murder and not one witness who ever told police they saw Simon at the park that night.
Rimland and Ciolino declined to discuss any of this with me. This account of their actions is drawn from depositions and testimony.
The confession was the main evidence against Simon, but the Northwestern investigators and Ciolino offered statements from other people they claimed were witnesses, including Simon’s ex-wife, Inez Jackson, and her nephew, Walter Jackson. They pointed to Simon as the killer.
These statements were shocking to the detectives as well, as no one had mentioned Simon in their original investigation, and neither Inez Jackson nor Walter Jackson had ever approached them about witnessing the crime. In fact, the detectives had never even heard the name Alstory Simon before.
In her statement, Inez Jackson said she saw the murder at the park because she was with Simon. This claim flew in the face of everything the detectives had learned about the killings. The entire statements by Inez Jackson and Walter Jackson were troubling to the detectives.
The detectives’ suspicion proved true. Several years later, Inez Jackson and her nephew recanted their statements that helped to convict Simon. Inez Jackson admitted Simon had nothing to do with the murders. She and her nephew Walter described a bizarre plan concocted with Protess as a means of getting Porter out of prison. Close to her death, Inez Jackson stated, on tape, that she could not die knowing she had framed Simon.
The reason they fingered Simon was that Protess promised to get Walter Jackson, who was serving his own prison sentence for murder, out of prison early.
Protess refuted this account on the blog of Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, describing her state as “dying, barely coherent and obviously medicated” when she recanted on her deathbed, pointing to her years-earlier sworn statement that “she had been offered nothing in exchange for her eyewitness statement against Alstory Simon.”
Years later, Simon recanted his own confession. He claimed that Ciolino, the private investigator working with Protess and the students, coerced him into a false confession. Simon said Ciolino threatened him with violence and the death penalty if he didn’t play ball, offering him a short prison sentence and money through movie and book deals for Simon if he confessed. Overwhelmed, Simon caved in.
After Protess and his students announced Porter was innocent and Simon was guilty, and prosecutors accepted their claims, things got even worse for the detectives. They were accused of framing Porter, and of knowingly ignoring evidence that Simon committed the murders.
Less than a year after Porter was released, Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty.
“How do you prevent another Anthony Porter—another innocent man or woman from paying the ultimate penalty for a crime he or she did not commit,” Ryan asked when he imposed the moratorium in 2000.
Accusations that the detectives tortured Porter were stunning given the fact that they never met Porter in the course of their own investigation. They only got a warrant for Porter’s arrest, based on all the witness statements. Porter turned himself in a few days after the murders to other detectives.
Shortly after his release, Porter and a team of high-powered attorneys, including O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, filed a lawsuit against the city based on the theory that the detectives had framed Porter. They could make millions from a successful wrong-conviction settlement.
It was a surreal time for the detectives. The man they had helped convict of a brutal double homicide was set free, likely to become a multimillionaire, and now they had become the defendants.
One common theme permeates the entire wrongful conviction movement: the police are crooked, willing to coerce confessions from the wrong man, willing to frame the wrong man, torture him, even. Police are often accused of racism in wrongful conviction cases, that they don’t care about African-American suspects or their communities. Many of these accusations were lobbed against the detectives in the Porter case, one of the most crucial wrongful conviction cases in the state’s history.
Detective Salvatore was in shock when Porter was released—most of all because it was difficult for him to deal with the idea that he had almost put an innocent man to death, even a man as criminal and violent as Porter. He felt as if he had failed as a police officer.
“There were many sleepless nights. I kept getting back to: did Anthony Porter commit the murders, or didn’t he? If he didn’t, and was executed, I don’t know how I would have lived with that,” Salvatore said to me.
In a state of deep self-doubt, detective Salvatore went back to all the files on the case, reviewing them step by step to see where he went wrong. As he did so, he followed the Innocence Project investigation carefully. He slowly became convinced once again that Porter was guilty and that something devious had taken place with the wrongful conviction investigation.
The detectives reviewed their investigation and concluded Porter was indeed guilty. Salvatore and Gray’s only hope for vindication was a 2005 civil case in which Porter’s attorneys could reap millions in a settlement. Even here, it didn’t seem as if the detectives would get a chance to defend their investigation.
With so much public support in favor of Porter, many people assumed there was little chance of a trial. Wrongful conviction advocates transformed Porter from a predatory killer into a folk hero. The image of Porter being released from prison and running into the embracing arms of David Protess was replayed over and over in the media.
In many ways it would be easier for the detectives if the city settled and just wrote Porter a check admitting no malfeasance by the detectives. The detectives could move on with their lives and enjoy retirement.
There was also great risk in going to trial. Evidence arising in a civil lawsuit could eventually lead to criminal charges against Salvatore and Gray. They could be vulnerable to paying damages, leaving them bankrupt. They could go to prison. If they were indeed dirty, a settlement was the best course of action.
But the detectives wanted to bring the case out into the open, and so they fought for the city not to settle with Porter’s attorney, and instead go to trial. The problem was that wrongful conviction claims had overwhelmed the city and garnered great support from the media, so much so that the city regularly settled wrongful conviction cases, even when detectives wanted to fight them. (According to a recent report from the Better Government Association, the city and other Illinois agencies have already paid out $253 million in settling these cases since 1989.)
Finally, the detectives caught a break. The city farmed out the civil case against the detectives to Walter Jones, an African-American attorney whose father had been a Chicago cop. Jones at first figured the case was a “dog,” meaning that it was unwinnable for the detectives. Like almost everyone else in the city, Jones figured Porter was innocent and the only issue was how much the city would pay in a settlement.
Salvatore and Gray began calling Jones, insisting that he meet with them to review the case. The detectives demanded that Jones return to Washington Park so they could walk him through the murders. Jones agreed.
During their re-investigation of the case, Jones discovered even more witnesses who said Porter was the shooter. No one, not the detectives, not Jones, no one ever found one witness who came forward and said they saw Simon commit the murders, nor did they find another witness at the scene who said Inez Jackson was at the crime scene. No one ever even claimed they saw Simon in the park that night.
Retired cops from all over the country came to the city to help the detectives prepare for the trial, for it was a common belief among the police that Porter was guilty and had gotten away with a double homicide.
As Jones reviewed the evidence, he became convinced that Porter was indeed guilty.
“I drove down to Washington Park and I met with Salvatore and he took me through the entire thing,” Jones said to me. “My mind started to change because Salvatore was so energetic and so determined to show me that the police officers had been right many years ago,” Jones says. “It’s clear that the investigation they ran is as good as it gets.”
In response, Jones called Porter’s shocked attorneys and rejected any settlement. The biggest wrongful conviction case in the state’s history, the one that ended the death penalty, was unraveling.
Although Porter had been declared innocent by the governor, Jones decided he would argue in the trial what he privately had come to believe: that Porter was the killer. In a brilliant summation speech, he showed clearly that the only person who could have killed Green and Hillard was Porter. In doing so, he contradicted the entire legal process that had freed Porter and the Innocence Project investigation in its entirety.
The jury agreed and ruled not guilty against the detectives. After the verdict, shocked journalists approached Jones and asked him how it was that Porter could be wrongfully convicted for sixteen years and not receive a dime. Jones pointed at Porter and said, “The killer has been sitting in that room right there all day.” It became an infamous accusation.
Salvatore and Gray figured their long trial was over. They thought they were finally vindicated in the media. They also assumed the public would grow suspicious about the Porter case and the Innocence Project led by professor Protess. Jones had won the civil case based on the argument that Porter was guilty. Nevertheless, the narrative that Porter was innocent remained intact, pushed relentlessly by Protess and his supporters in the media, like Tribune writer Eric Zorn, who wrote a scathing attack on Jones for claiming Porter was guilty, and that Jones owed Porter an apology.
How could Porter’s guilt be so obvious to the detectives and Walter Jones, but impossible for people like Eric Zorn to fathom? One reason is that few members in the media bothered to look at the evidence and ask elemental questions. To the best of my knowledge, no journalists, for example, ever asked the central question after the civil trial: If the claims that Porter had been framed by the police were shot down in the civil trial, and the detectives’ attorney had argued Porter was the killer, why was Porter free to walk the streets and Simon still in prison?
One wonders when journalism professors started teaching students to get only one side of a story. It turned out that, during the Innocence Project investigation, the detectives say that neither Protess nor his journalism students ever attempted to sit down with the detectives and listen to their account.
This is a striking fault, since the basis of their argument of Porter’s innocence hinged on their claim the detectives had framed Porter, intimidated witnesses and denied evidence. It would have been a valuable experience for journalism students to test their assumptions about a case and to confront an experienced detective about the investigation. It may also have ended the Porter exoneration crusade.
Another crucial fact that never saw light in the media was the fact of corroborating witnesses obtained by the police. Witnesses in a gang-infested area are difficult to obtain and unreliable, particularly when the offender, like Porter, is a gang member. Witness statements can be motivated by revenge, gang allegiances, misconceptions, family disputes or fear of retaliation. Often it is difficult to get even one person to admit what they saw. But when detectives obtain independent, corroborating statements down to specific details, as they did in the Porter case, the case is considered rock solid. The detectives had six corroborating witnesses.
“Everything matched up,” Salvatore says. “Everything.”
In a grand jury trial, which was held in secret around the same time Porter was released in 1999, Protess, Ciolino and the students underwent questioning by the prosecutor. It was the first time a wrongful conviction case was placed under such scrutiny. This prosecutor, Thomas Gainer, had reviewed all the documents, case reports and transcripts of Porter’s criminal trial.
Protess and his students dropped a bombshell in the hearing. They revealed that they had never bothered to interview the second group of witnesses, including eyewitness Kenneth Edwards. How could the professor and the students fail to interview these witnesses, just as they had failed to interview the detectives, and claim they had conducted an investigation?
The prosecutor of the grand jury trial saw it clearly. He pounced on the fact that the Northwestern student investigators did not contact the second group of witnesses. Here Gainer questions one of the student investigators, Tom McCann:
Q. Do you remember what Kenneth Edwards told the police that night?
Q. Are you aware that Kenneth Edwards told the police that night that Anthony Porter was the person who shot and killed Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green?
Q. Did you look at the police reports?
A. I did.
Q· Do you remember a police report that summarizes the testimony of William Taylor and Henry Williams?
A. I think I read that
Q. So now you see that in addition to Williams and Taylor there was another person who told the police that Anthony Porter was the shooter that night?
Q. As well as three other people who witnessed the incident?
Q. Did you do anything to investigate them?
The prosecutor questions Protess:
Q. You were aware that there were four other young men who were interviewed by the police, were you not, in connection with the shooting the same night that Taylor and Williams were interviewed?
Q. Those people being Beckwith, Senior, Woodfork and Edwards, correct?
A. I don’t recall the names, but I do remember what you are saying…
Q. Mr. Edwards identified Anthony Porter as the shooter that night, did he not?
. I would have to go back over the report.
Q. Please do so. I direct your attention to page 4 of the August 16, 1982, supplementary report under ZO RD 290330 authored by Salvatore and Gray.
A. Unfortunately I don’t have my reading glasses, but I’d ask you to read it to me.
Q. I will be happy to read it. “Kenneth Edwards was interviewed and he related he and three of his friends, Woodfork, Beckwith and Senior went to the Washington Park swimming pool about midnight on the day in question, 16 [sic] August ’82, Sunday. Kenneth related that he and friends entered the pool area on the north side fence. He observed four people in the gallery area in the uppermost northwest section, (victims and offender, unknown male black). They were sitting and talking to each other. Kenneth and his group proceeded further down the pool area and he and Eugene Beckwith began to swim. Approximately fifteen minutes later Kenneth had come out of the pool. He heard a shot and looked up and saw a muzzle flash from a handgun. He then observed the offender Tony Porter standing over one of the victims and fired two more shots at the victim at point blank range.” Do you remember reading that?
Q. And your students didn’t investigate those four men, did they?
Q. You didn’t ask Paul Ciolino to find those four men?
Q. You didn’t go out yourself and look for those four men?
Q. None of your group ever conducted any interview of those four men?
A. That’s correct.
Here was an ominous admission by Protess and his students: They hadn’t even bothered to interview four central witnesses in the case. This fact alone refuted almost the entirety of their claims.
Other aspects of the Protess claims also fell apart. The students claimed that the witnesses who fingered Porter had an obstructed view of the crime. Strange then, the detectives pointed out, that two sets of witnesses encountered at different times, witnesses who had no reasonable chance to talk to each other, came up with identical accounts. How could two witnesses say they saw Porter shoot with his left hand yet not be able to see the crime? But, just as important, the two detectives, the prosecutor and witnesses Taylor and Williams had already walked through the crime scene the day after the shootings. With almost two decades of experience investigating crimes, how likely would it be that both the detectives, and then the state’s attorney who was with them, would overlook an obstructed view? How likely is it that they wouldn’t notice this as they reconstructed the murders?
“Their [Protess and his students] investigation was flawed,” Salvatore said to me. “They compromised the facts. They twisted the facts.”
In the years that followed, a disturbing vision of David Protess and the Innocence Project emerged, as well as of the wrongful conviction movement itself. In 2011, Protess was caught by Northwestern University “knowingly misrepresenting the facts” in a matter related to an unrelated wrongful conviction case. The attorney for Northwestern told a judge that Protess had altered emails subpoenaed by prosecutors.
Protess brushed aside the assertion that he had altered evidence, saying it was just a misunderstanding, but it was enough for Northwestern to conduct its own internal investigation. After this internal investigation, Protess was fired from the university and the school issued a public statement acknowledging Protess’ wrongdoing.
I exchanged many emails with Protess and some phone calls with Paul Ciolino when I first became interested in this story. But as my questions eventually revealed my skepticism about the Porter exoneration and the conviction of Simon, as well as the manner in which Protess ran the Innocence Project—which he continues to run to this day independent of Northwestern—Ciolino refused to respond to my inquiries. Eventually, Protess, too, stopped responding to me.
How deep did Protess’ lying go? How badly were his cases tainted? Perhaps the best people to answer this question are detectives Salvatore and Gray, and Alstory Simon, who wastes away in prison to this day.
“I got accused of a lot of things I didn’t do. There were lies said about me in this case. If they’re lying about me, who else are they lying about? What other detectives are they lying about?” Salvatore says.
Martin Preib is a Chicago police officer and writer. His first book, “The Wagon and Other Stories from the City,” was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010. His essays have been published in Playboy, Virginia Quarterly Review (winner of the 2005 Staige D. Blackford Award for Nonfiction) and Tin House. His new book, “Crooked City,” will be available at Amazon.com this month.