A former Chicago Tribune reporter accuses an ex-Northwestern professor of unethical practices in Justice Perverted: How The Innocence Project at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Sent an Innocent Man to Prison. The book is the latest chapter in a “wrongful conviction” case that spans three decades.
In Justice Perverted, published in June 2015 by Amika Press, author William B. Crawford claims former Northwestern professor David Protess, who headed Northwestern’s Innocence Project, used ethically and legally questionable methods to help win the release of a guilty man from prison, replacing him with an innocent man. Basing his findings on public records, Crawford attempts to portray a case full of deception and injustice. In- stead, the book leaves readers lost in a detailed and complicated web with more questions than answers.
Justice Perverted opens with two homicides in Chicago’s Washington Park in August 1982. Marilyn Green, 19, and her fiancé Jerry Hillard, 18, sat in the spectators’ bleachers by the public pool, attempting to cool off in the heat, according to the book. The teenagers were fatally shot around 1 a.m. Hillard was shot twice in the head, while Green was shot three times and managed to stumble one block from the pool, holding her bleeding neck. Green, a mother of two toddlers, was pronounced dead when she arrived at Provident Hospital. Her fiancé died on the operating table at the University of Chicago’s Billings Hospital. At least three wit- nesses claimed to have seen Anthony Porter, who Crawford describes as a “violent, semiliterate, high-school dropout,” commit the crime. Porter was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to death.
Porter sat in jail for 17 years until Protess, who was also a former political science assistant professor at Loyola, and a group of Northwestern students fought to prove his innocence. As head of Northwestern’s Innocence Project. Protess and his team researched cases and attempted to free death row prisoners if they believed the defendants were wrongly convicted. In his book, Crawford claims that Protess used bribes and lies to free Porter and convict a new man, Alstory Simon, who was sentenced to 37 years in prison.
One scene Crawford focuses on is the one in which Simon’s estranged wife, Inez Jackson, stated Simon was the murderer in January 1999, and then recanted it in 2005. In 1999, Protess, two students and a private investigator traveled to Jackson’s house in Milwaukee. The team then took Jackson to a German restaurant, where she signed an affidavit, a written statement accusing Simon of the murders. At one of the student’s homes, Jackson gave a videotaped confession that “would be broadcast widely and would ultimately spring Porter from death row,” according to the book. In 2005, Jackson, then 55 and close to death from an AIDS infection, made a videotaped recantation. According to Justice Perverted, Jackson said she wrongfully accused her estranged husband of the murder for three reasons: Protess said he would free her nephew and son from jail (they were both serving time for murders), Protess and another private detective promised her large amounts of money, and she was mad at Simon.
This failure of justice expands beyond Northwestern’s campus, according to Crawford. He said it also includes Cook County law officials. Crawford also blames the media for ignoring testimonies in Simon’s case. In an interview with The PHOENIX, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author noted it’s unclear why journalists didn’t investigate Simon’s conviction.
“[Protess is] a media darling, and they fell for it — hook, line and sinker,” Crawford said, speaking of the media. “It was sort of a lemming effect. They all came running to the cliff together … No one said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Let’s step back and find out what happened here.’”
Crawford and Protess are no strangers. When Crawford wrote for the Chicago Tribune and Protess worked at the Better Government Association, the pair collaborated on multiple articles, according to Crawford. Crawford once labeled Protess “a good guy,” but after re- searching Simon’s case, Crawford now has a different opinion.
“I want [readers] to understand the evil sinister charade that was engineered and overseen by a now fired 29-year professor at the Medill School of Journalism. I want to unmask him,” said Crawford. “The sole purpose of this book is to unmask the man who sent an innocent man away for 15 years.”
Protess now heads the nonprofit organization Chicago Innocence Center, and when reached for a comment, his office stated he “is not conducting any interviews at this time.”
The Simon-Porter case is complicated, but if Crawford’s goal is to “unmask” Protess, it largely fails. The book’s 213 pages are filled with court transcripts, document excerpts and witness statements, yet it’s missing in-person interviews. Crawford said this was because no one would speak to him about the case.
“My writing style would have been totally different if anyone gave me any assistance on this story,” said Crawford. “They knew that the truth came out and it was going to make them look terrible.”
Crawford recalled a long list of people who he said didn’t answer his calls or ignored him, including four Innocence Project students, members of the press who were “singing Protess’ praises,” Medill professors and Dick Devine, the Cook County state’s attorney at the time of Porter’s release.
Devine, who Crawford accuses in Justice Perverted of aiding Porter’s release from jail without carefully reviewing evidence, said Crawford may have called or emailed him, but the last discussion the pair had was “a couple of years ago.” Devine also said that some of the discussions were more Crawford explaining his view, than the author asking questions.
Without these crucial voices, Justice Perverted isn’t a complete investigative account. Personal narratives would also help break up the myriad of information Crawford provides, including mini-biographies of characters, court procedures (which even my frequent Law and Order marathons couldn’t help me decipher) and synopses of other cases.
After reading, I still don’t have a full-fleshed image of Protess, Porter or Simon. What are their personalities like? What provoked their actions? What is their side of the story? The lack of interviews makes these crucial figures seem like just names on a page.
When Crawford is able to provide scene details, the results are emotional. He takes readers from a packed Cook County courtroom where a “blanket of silence” falls across the room as Simon apologizes to Green’s mother, to a “gray autumn” day when Simon fights back tears as he leaves prison, serving 15 years of his original 37-year sentence, after the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit reviewed Simon’s case and determined he should be freed.
Crawford sets the case up as a play, mentioning it’s a “tragicomedy” in the introduction and including a “cast of characters” at the end. But it’s a play that’s missing scenes. Storylines are buried under heavy details and unanswered questions still remain: Why did Porter allegedly shoot the couple? Was there an accomplice? Why did the media immediately take Protess’ side when Crawford claims Simon is clearly innocent?
It’s crucial for us to uncover the injustices that happen in our backyard. The Porter-Simon case didn’t unfold in faraway places; it happened in Cook County courtrooms, in the restaurants, streets and apartments we pass on our way to work. But for justice to persevere, we have to understand the full story, which isn’t possible when voices such as Protess, Porter and the journalists accused of failing to investigate the case are not represented.
Justice Perverted brings readers up to speed on the present situation, in which Simon is currently suing Protess, Northwestern University and two others for $40 million for his “wrongful conviction and incarceration.” The Simon-Porter story needs to be heard, but it first needs to be unknotted from a tangled web of information. Crawford provides a valuable start to the case, but it’s just one narrative out of many. I’ll be waiting for the verdict.
CORRECTION: The author originally stated that Porter plead guilty in 1983. Porter was found guilty that year.