A man cleared of murder charges last year after spending more than a decade behind bars filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, accusing Northwestern University of turning a blind eye to the allegedly unethical and deceptive tactics being taught in a journalism class focused on investigating alleged wrongful convictions.
In his 50-page lawsuit, Alstory Simon claims "Northwestern's conduct permitted a culture of lawlessness to thrive in" the class, but ignored it because the class led by former professor David Protess garnered the school national recognition, boosted the reputation of the Medill School of Journalism, attracted students and promoted fundraising activities.
Simon's suit, which seeks $40 million in damages, names Northwestern and Protess as defendants, along with Paul J. Ciolino, an investigator who helped Protess teach students techniques and assist in the investigations, and Illinois attorney Jack P. Rimland, who Simon contends represented him in a way that furthered the class's efforts.
Now a 64-year-old Ohio resident, Simon was arrested when he was 48 for the 1982 murders of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green that Anthony Porter had already been convicted of and was awaiting execution for at that time.
Protess's class began looking into Porter's conviction in 1998, when the suit alleges the students were told to investigate the case and "develop evidence of Porter's innocence, rather than to search for the truth."
During the investigation, Simon claims Protess's team manufactured false witness statements and then used those, along with threats and other deceitful tactics, to coerce him into giving a false confession.
Simon's suit states he confessed after being showed a videotape of a man who ended up being an actor claiming he saw Simon commit the murder. He alleges Protess's team told him he could avoid the death penalty, as well as get a shortened sentence, a free lawyer and money from book and movie deals, by saying he shot the victims in self-defense.
Simon claims he provided the false confession, "believing he had no other viable option and acting under extreme duress and the influence of narcotics."
"The horrific injustice that befell Simon occurred when defendants ... conspired to frame Simon for the murders in order to secure the release of the real killer, Anthony Porter," the suit asserts, further accusing the defendants of getting Rimland to represent Simon so he could coerce him into pleading guilty.
While Porter was released and Simon was eventually convicted for the double murder, a situation that many credit for former Governor George Ryan's decision to declare a moratorium on the death penalty, Simon was freed in October 2014 following a yearlong investigation by the Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office.
A judge vacated Simon's conviction after the prosecutor's office said "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," the suit states, citing a news release from Alvarez's office.
Alvarez also noted in the release that the investigation conducted by Protess's class "involved a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards," and may have constituted criminal behavior--obstruction of justice and witness intimidation --but were now barred by the statute of limitations.
Although Simon has been released and his conviction vacated, his suit stresses " he will never regain the decade and a half lost of his life" to incarceration, during which time he missed his mother's funeral and was stripped of his personal relationships, goals and right to move about freely.
Simon's suit makes several jabs at Protess's investigative journalism class, including saying that "in reality, very little, if any, journalism was conducted."
It also contends the journalism students were used "as pawns to deflect public scrutiny from the blatantly illegal and unethical investigative techniques routinely employed by Northwestern’s employees and/or agents to generate statements from witnesses without regard to the truth or falsity of those statements."
Simon's suit focuses on the allegation that Northwestern permitted the alleged misconduct of the individual defendants because Protess, along with the school, had gained recognition for previous investigations that resulted in convictions being overturned, including those in the cases of David Dowaliby and the so-called Ford Heights Four.
Following those successes, which led to the publication of books and airing of television specials, Simon claims Northwestern allowed the journalism class to be "converted ... into a vehicle to manufacture cases establishing innocence in order to exonerate allegedly wrongfully convicted individuals."
Simon's suit includes counts alleging malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress against all the defendants and negligent supervision and retention claims against Northwestern.
He is represented by Terry A. Ekl of Ekl Williams & Provenzale in Lisle, James G. Sotos of Sotos Law Firm in Itastca and Andrew M. Hale of Hale Law in Chicago.