Prosecutors are re-examining the conviction of a man whose initial confession to a 1982 double murder in Chicago led to another suspect's release and, ultimately, helped end the death penalty in Illinois.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez instructed her Conviction Integrity Unit to review the case after receiving a detailed letter from the prisoner's attorneys questioning the conviction, her spokeswoman said Wednesday.
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Alstory Simon's confession helped free Anthony Porter from death row in 1998 just days before he was to be executed. Porter's release was among the reasons former Gov. George Ryan halted all executions in Illinois in 2003 over fears that a flawed system had led to wrongful convictions of death row inmates. The state abolished its death penalty in 2011.
Simon pleaded guilty and is serving a 37-year sentence. But he later recanted his confession, alleging he was coerced into making it by a private investigator who promised Simon he would get an early release and a share of the riches from book and movie deals.
Simon has been seeking a new trial for years, but his efforts have been rejected.
Alvarez, whose Conviction Integrity Unit has helped vacate convictions in six cases since it was created in February 2012, decided to examine Simon's case after receiving a letter from his attorneys, Terry Ekl and James Sotos.
"It's quite detailed with a significant amount of information that at least on a prima facie basis, we believe, warrants another look," said Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly. She would not go into specifics about any new information contained in the letter.
"We've only just begun the review in this case. ... We have no predetermined notion of where the review will go," Daly said.
The murder case took a dramatic turn when Northwestern University professor David Protess, private investigator Paul Ciolino and a team of journalism students helped convince a judge that Porter was innocent.
They located Simon, then living in Milwaukee, and he confessed to killing Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard, who were shot to death in a Chicago park.
But Simon alleged in a petition filed by his attorneys in 2005 in Cook County that Ciolino and a partner from his investigation firm came to his house with guns and convinced him that he was going to be convicted in the slayings and sent to death row.
Simon said the men promised him, however, that if he confessed to shooting Green and Hillard in self-defense, they would ensure Protess would work to have him spared the death penalty and get him early release from jail. Simon says the men promised that in return he would get a share of millions of dollars in profits from movie and book deals.
The 2005 petition also alleges that Simon's ex-wife, Inez Jackson Simon, said Protess promised her money if she helped free Porter and testify against Simon, and that she also believed Protess would help her get her son and nephew released early from jail.
Protess has denied those claims, calling them "completely ludicrous."
Ciolino also denies the claims. He said when he and a partner found Simon living in Milwaukee and spoke with him, Simon initially refused to confess to the killings on video. A television happened to be on at the time, though, and Simon did confess in a moment of panic after he saw his ex-wife being interviewed on a news program and implicating him.
"It was dumb luck," Ciolino said, adding that he believed the confession was genuine and noting that Simon also apologized to the victims' families in court.
Ciolino acknowledged that he gave Simon the names of several lawyers, but he denied that he offered Simon any help with a plea deal or dangled the prospect of a movie deal.
"I'm not prompting him, I'm not putting words in his mouth," Ciolino said of the videotaped confession.
"I couldn't stage this if I had Steven Spielberg sitting there with me."