The Guilty Project
The Weekly Standard, NOV 24, 2014, VOL. 20, NO. 11 BY THE SCRAPBOOK
For years the “Innocence Project” at Northwestern University’s -Medill School of Journalism was “the most celebrated university program in America,” as the Chicago Reader put it. It’s also one of the most emulated, spawning imitators at law and journalism schools from Maine to Maui. And who could be surprised? Under the tutelage of a left-wing professor who was invariably valorized in news reports as “charismatic” and “inspirational,” Medill’s students reopened the cases of selected death-row inmates, declared them innocent, and then agitated for their release. Occasionally they succeeded, freeing in the process several men whose convictions rested on shaky evidence.
The public image was of a plucky platoon of college-age Encyclopedia Browns and Nancy Drews setting out to right wrongs. But the real value of the Innocence Project—and the reason it was the object of such tender attentions from Hollywood and the mainstream media—has been ideological. Its mission was to confirm the assumptions dearly held in the upper ranks of American journalism and higher education: the basic unfairness of our criminal justice system, the barbarism of the death penalty, and the public’s bovine complacency in the face of murderous institutional racism.
This narrative—if you’ll forgive the expression—was greatly complicated late last month when prosecutors in Chicago concluded that the Innocence Project had railroaded a man into prison for a double murder he didn’t commit. Needless to say, that’s not how the project is supposed to work.
The case involved the project’s signal triumph. In 1999, Medill’s student investigators won the release of a convicted murderer, Anthony Porter, after another man, Alstory Simon, confessed to the 1982 crime. Porter had once been only days away from his appointment with the executioner, and upon his release he became the poster child for the anti-death-penalty movement. Porter’s close call led -Illinois’s then-governor, George Ryan, to commute the capital sentence of every inmate on the state’s death row.
Simon’s confession—the only evidence presented against him—was made to investigators from the Innocence Project. He retracted it after his conviction, claiming that the charismatic professor, two of the project’s junior G-men, and a pair of private investigators had combined to bully the confession out of him. Their tactics, prosecutors found, included showing Simon videotaped testimony from an alleged eyewitness, who was in fact an actor hired by the investigators. Simon was led to believe he would benefit from a movie deal and be released within a few years. He was also shown testimony from his wife, obtained by the project, placing him at the scene of the crime; she later recanted. And when it came time for Simon to hire legal counsel, the investigators brought in a lawyer associated with the project’s effort to spring Porter from death row. The lawyer advised him to confess.
“The bottom line,” the prosecutor concluded last month, “is that the investigation . . . as well as the subsequent legal representation of Mr. Simon were so flawed that it’s clear the constitutional rights of Mr. Simon were not scrupulously protected as our law requires.” A judge agreed, and Simon walked out of prison a few hours later.
The 1982 murder remains unsolved. But the tactics of the Innocence Project in their rush to reassign guilt for a capital crime—to take upon themselves the roles of judge, prosecutor, and jury, by virtue of their own righteous indignation—is a case study in the dangers of ideological zeal, and of journalistic gullibility.