A man wrongly imprisoned for 15 years for a Chicago double murder has sued Northwestern University for $40 million, alleging it allowed an investigative journalism professor to coerce a false confession from him.
The lawsuit pits Alstory Simon, 64, who was released from prison in October, against David Protess, a former Northwestern journalism professor. Simon accuses Protess of conspiring with Paul Ciolino, a private investigator, to frame him for a 1982 double killing.
The lawsuit is the latest twist in a mishandled murder case that has seen two convictions overturned and contributed to Illinois abandoning the death penalty.
Protess and Ciolino "intentionally manufactured false witness statements against Simon and then used the fabricated evidence, along with terrifying threats and other illegal and deceitful tactics, to coerce a knowingly false confession from Simon," says the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court.
"Northwestern's conduct permitted a culture of lawlessness to thrive," in Protess' once-heralded investigative journalism program, the lawsuit claims. Students from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism participated in the work that snared Simon.
Protess in 1999 was reviewing the fatal shooting of Marilyn Green, 19, and Jerry Hillard, 18, at a public swimming pool. At the time, Anthony Porter was on death row for the slayings. Porter was released after Simon unexpectedly made a videotaped confession to Ciolino that he was the sole killer. A day after Porter's release on Feb. 4, 1999, Simon was charged with the pool slayings.
Despite pleading guilty to murder and manslaughter — and giving a television interview from behind bars in which he again admitted to the shootings -- Simon later recanted, and for years sought to prove he'd been manipulated by Protess, the private eye, and his former defense lawyer.
A breakthrough came in October, when the Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez got Simon's 37-year sentence thrown out.
“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 then.
Alvarez' office has refused to discuss specifics of the investigation into Protess, Ciolino and Jack Rimland, Simon's lawyer.
Simon's current lawyers say Ciolino allegedly cajoled Simon to confess by saying he could get a lighter sentence as well as money from film and book deals.
Evidence assembled against Simon later faded into doubt. Simon's estranged wife, Inez Jackson, said in 1999 that she saw Simon shoot the couple. But Jackson disavowed the statement in 2005, saying she had blamed her husband because Protess promised to get her nephew out of jail.
Rimland's role was questioned because he was introduced to Simon by Ciolino, one of the men trying to pin the crime on Simon.
Protess resigned from Northwestern in 2011 after the university concluded he'd made false statements to school officials. He now runs the Chicago Innocence Project, which investigates potential wrongful convictions, and has occasionally blogged for HuffPost, where he has argued that Simon was the gunman in the pool killings.
Ciolino declined to comment to HuffPost. Protess and Rimland didn't respond to inquiries.
"The university is reviewing the allegations in the lawsuit and will respond appropriately," Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for community relations, said in a statement. "Northwestern denies all wrongdoing in this matter and looks forward to being vindicated in a court of law."
HuffPost couldn't reach Simon, who's now living in the Cleveland area, according to friend and filmmaker Shawn Rech. Rech released "A Murder in the Park" last year, which argued that Simon was railroaded by Protess, his team and county prosecutors. He contends that Porter, the inmate released in 1999, was the true killer.
Rech said Simon hasn't said much to him about the lawsuit, but seems happy as a freed man trying to boost his health after years in prison.
"He went in there a strapping 46-year-old who was very mobile," Rech told HuffPost. "He came out in a lot worse shape."