In 1999, just hours before his scheduled execution, convicted killer Anthony Porter's life was saved by a journalism class from Northwestern University, led by renowned Innocence Project pioneer, Prof. David Protess. The class seemingly found the real killer, Alstory Simon. And this discovery not only got Porter released, but he became the poster boy of the anti-death penalty movement which culminated in then-Gov. George Ryan to abolished the death penalty in Illinois. If you lived in Illinois at the time, you remember the outcome, but you might not remember the specifics of the case that led to Ryan’s change of heart.
What is less know and was less reported is that in all likelihood, Northwestern's investigation led to the release of the real killer, and imprisoned an innocent man. Filmmakers Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber have made a harrowing and compelling documentary A MURDER IN THE PARK that compiles all the evidence and walks us step by step through the case as told by all parties involved (police, the two accused men in the Chicago double murder, members of the media who covered the story as it unfolded, and many of the witnesses, including many who changed their stories more than once). This re-examination of the facts (and fictions) in these events, the initial investigation, and subsequent investigative tactics by the Northwestern team led to the Cook County State's Attorney's office reopening this case in October 2013.
I had a chance to chat with co-director Shawn Rech recently to go over his process of putting the film together, with an eye toward not falling into the same trap that many before him did when it came to drawing conclusions before having all of the facts in hand. Rech’s history into crime stories goes back many years as an executive producer and director of the Fox syndicated series “Crime Stoppers Case Files,” which included a season of nothing but Chicago crimes. A MURDER IN THE PARK is as gripping as any feature film and lays out it’s story skillfully and clearly, despite its endless layers of truth and those who would suppress it to avoid humiliation and political ramifications. Sadly, it’s a classic Chicago story, but in many ways it’s also a perfect American tale of miscarried justice and misplaced do-goodism.
And if you happen to be in Chicago on Saturday, July 11, come to the Gene Siskel Film Center screening at 7:30pm (the film plays there for two weeks beginning July 10), after which there will be a panel discussion featuring co-director Rech; author and retired Chicago Tribune investigative reporter William Crawford; Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn; Executive Director, Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University, Locke Bowman; and journalist and Executive Director, Emeritus, Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, Rob Warden.
With all that in mind, please enjoy my chat with Shawn Rech, and check out A MURDER IN THE PARK when it opens near you…
Shawn Rech: Hi, Steve. How are you?
Capone: Hi Shawn. How are you doing?
SR: Good, thanks.
Capone: Do you have roots in Chicago, or it’s just a coincidence that this story was on your radar?
SR: No, I love Chicago. It’s probably my favorite city; it’s like a big Cleveland. We used to produce “Crime Stoppers” programs, which were open-ended, call-to-action programs. We started in Cleveland on CBS, went to Miami and L.A. on CBS, and then we got a deal on Fox’s My50 in Chicago. I got a sponsor for the show, an attorney named Andrew Hale, and I said, “Hey, I’m going to wind these down. I’m not making any money and I’m going to try to find someone else to do these shows.” He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to make films. It’s always been my goal, and this is like the minor leagues and a way to get better at everything we’re doing and develop our contacts and get access.”
He said, “What kind of a movie do you want to make?” And I said, “I want to do a “wrongful conviction” story. I’d love to affect someone’s life or save someone’s life. I just think a lot of mistakes are made. I think that innocent people have been executed.” So I told him that’s what I wanted to do, and he said, “Man, I know one that will twist your head off. It’s really complicated; it’s probably not an easy story to tell in a movie. If you want, I’ll tell you about it.” And he did, and that was it. We had initial misgivings, because of the whole, “Why would someone confess?” question, but once we understood it, we dug right in and spent two-and-a-half years making the film. Andrew Hale came on as the executive producer with me, the guy who told me about the story.
Capone: In the interest of full disclosure, I went to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and [Chicago Tribune columnist] Eric Zorn was actually my news-writing professor in my sophomore year.
SR: Zorn and I are cool. In fact, he hates this, because [David] Protess is his good friend, but Eric Zorn freed Alstory Simon [the second man convicted of this murder]. He called for the reopening, and it was a renewed call. He called before he met me, but when Brandon and I showed him Alstory’s explanation of what happened, he renewed his call and that’s what emboldened Al’s attorney to try a new angle, and it all worked out. I’ve told Eric many times, and he bristles because he doesn’t like all this, I don’t think, but he’s the hero here.
Capone: Protess when at Northwestern when I was there—I graduated in 1990. I did not take this class, but I know people that did. That wasn’t the branch of journalism I was interested in.
SR: He was there over 20 years, so he was definitely there when you were.
Capone: One of my best friends is a Chicago police detective, and I want to bring him to one of the screenings in Chicago, just because I want him to see a movie where the police do everything right. We’re so used to seeing stories, both documentaries and fiction films, where they’re doing everything wrong.
SR: You’re right, and they just stuck to procedure. This was just a regular case. It was work to them, and they had a certain way of operating and they plodded through, and that’s why when this came back up, they were just looking at each other like, “What the hell are these guys talking about? What about the six witnesses, which nobody bothered to check out?” Even Protess and his grand jury didn’t know about the six witnesses. I think it’s refreshing and I think that the cops aren’t always evil and they aren’t always beating people up and beating confessions out of people. These guys, their names were dragged through the mud. I didn’t put too much of it in there, but this guy, [Charles] Salvatore, the lead detective, he burst into tears. He’s like, “My daughter's at college, and I’ve got to name her college fund [as an asset], and they could possibly freeze it. I may have to say, ‘Honey, you have to come home from college over this lawsuit.’ What did I do wrong?” I put some of it in, but it was really emotional for him and the others.
Capone: When you’re approaching a story like this for a documentary, did you approach it differently, because most of the facts were out there and you didn’t have to go digging for them?Were the things that you uncovered in your process of crime reporting?
SR: The weird thing is, a lot of this work was already done. And it was doled out piecemeal, one little piece at a time as they found one thing out in 2001, they found something else out in 2003, another witness comes forward in 2005, they find somebody else. A lot of what’s in the film had been reported piecemeal and dismissed out of hand by reporters who had a vested interest in the original narrative. Meaning they reported what Protess gave them, and they didn’t want to hear any differently. Steve Mills [of the Chicago Tribune] comes to mind. So they just mocked this stuff as it comes out, but when you look at it in its totality, it’s a little different.
So here’s the approach we took, and as far as finding new things, yes. We found out that there were three grand juries involved with Simon’s indictment. There was a grand jury that heard all the evidence, and it was clear to them, because the jurors were questioning the students saying, “Weren’t you pawns?” It was clear to the prosecutors at that point that they weren’t going to get an indictment, so they just dismissed them without asking for one. They called a new grand jury and didn’t bring anybody implicating Porter. It was really, really improper. So we found that second grand jury that shows some real misconduct on the part of the state’s attorney’s office, in my opinion. They were reactionary. They were just like a dog that was beaten too much, and they were just flinching at every single article that came out and having knee-jerk reactions. The press were really beat up by it, and they were wrong in a lot of cases.
But we found new evidence. The biggest thing we found was the fact that there was more than one grand jury. Originally, we thought that grand jury returned the indictment, and we couldn’t understand how these jurors were almost hostile. One juror stood up and said, “I don’t think I’d send my daughter to this school if this is happening.” So how would they return an indictment? So that was one thing. Here’s what we did: We took all the claims from those two retired ATF agents, they researched this case like crazy. They gave us their files. We were only going to include things that A), were documented, or B), in which we could establish a pattern. When Al says, “[Protess-hired private investigator Paul] Ciolino told me he was going to put a bullet between my eyes,” we found that Ciolino was charged with threatening someone else that he was going to put a bullet in their head. So that’s a pattern. The claims that people made about Protess offering money, thankfully we found those letters, and he actually wrote a chapter in his book about it, so we could back everything up. I didn’t want it to be, “They say this; we say this; we’ll never know.” I wanted people to walk out of this theater like, “How the hell did this happen?
So we decided everything that was going to be backed up and made this two-and-a-half-hour version of the movie, and you would have needed a laptop and a notepad, and you would have to draw a map to follow the original cut of the movie. And we said, we’ve got to cut some branches off this tree and make this digestible and make it entertaining and make it easy to watch and still be a call to action. As far as we knew, there was no way Simon could get out. We just thought we were going to get people fired up and maybe they were going to take a little closer look at these cases when they were brought up. So that’s what we did. We spent over a year paring this story down. We did rely on quite a bit of work provided the ATF guys and also the retired Pulitzer-winning author William Crawford from the Chicago Tribune. Those three guys did a ton of this work.
Capone: The big flaw in Protess’ process is that he’d already made up his mind about the truth at a certain point.
SR: Which we documented.
Capone: Right. He did that instead of letting the truth reveal itself. How did you make sure that you didn’t fall into the same trap when you were reporting your story? How did you make sure that you tracked the truth instead of what you thought the truth was going in?
SR: We sat there as viewers, and I guess we sat there an acted as jurors early in the process and looked at the fact that there were six witnesses putting Porter there. The fact that Porter said he wasn’t in the park, that he didn’t hang out there, then finding out he was on probation for beating a man almost to death in the stands, in that row of the stands where he killed those people, and the fact that nobody, not one human being, put Alstory Simon in that park. None of the six witnesses knew who he was. Then the kicker was when we read the grand jury testimony and realized that Protess himself wasn’t aware of all the eyewitnesses, that’s when we knew this was totally phoned in. And yes, at a certain point, we decided that we did take a side. There’s no doubt about it, because it just became so clear and obvious to us. And that’s why we made sure it was a lock box and that we could prove everything.
We tried so hard to get them involved and to get them to argue on their own behalf, but the arguments that we got—a lot of it was through Eric, because Protess in my mind argued through him. Eric and I have had a lot of long email exchanges asked “But why did [Simon] confess? Why did he keep confessing? Why did he do an interview six months later and apologize?” Eric didn’t say, “There are these witnesses.” He couldn’t explain away all the solid, traditional evidence against Porter. They just kept talking about a confused man’s confession when he thought his goose was cooked. You have to remember, Simon did not know about the evidence against Porter until two years into his sentence. He didn’t know that that was an actor implicating him. He thought, “My ex-wife hates me. She turned on me, her son turned on me, her nephew turned on me, and I’m screwed because they’ve got their stories straight together.” And he was afraid of dying.
I had lunch with Protess, he said, “I’m not going to be in your movie. There’s no way you’re not going to make me look like an asshole.” That’s an exact quote. I said, “Well, we will let you give your peace.” It makes for a good movie, if he sits here and tells us we’re crazy and we’re being duped, it would be a good film. There’s nothing wrong with putting that in. We have no agenda. We were telling a story the way we believed it, once we saw the evidence. Hale didn’t say we had to do anything in a certain way. Hale never interfered in the film making process.
Another thing people fall back on, Protess wrote a Huffington Post piece saying the film is partially paid for by a pro-cop attorney. He didn’t have a time machine. He didn’t go back and create these witnesses. Porter’s alibi witness now says he was in the park with Porter; we didn’t put that in the movie. So we thought we went into it pretty fair and balanced. Once we decided we had enough proof of what had happened, we just wanted to tell the story in the most digestible way. We showed their answers. We pulled it out from depositions; we used news clippings to the extent it was legal, and interviews. Everything that everybody alleged, they backed up with their own words.
When Simon says “I couldn’t even think,” and Ciolino says, “We bull rushed him, and mentally he couldn’t recover.” And then Simon says, “When I saw my ex-wife on TV, I knew there was no way I could win.” And then Ciolino says on TV, “There’s a point when your news story came on, and he looked at the TV, and he just quit.” Even ttheir words corroborate the claims being made on the other side. That’s how we tried to craft this. We went into it objectively, then we had no cooperation from that side.
Capone: I get why Protess won’t talk to you, but I’m actually surprised that one of the students hasn't come forward or that they wouldn’t talk to you, just to clear their conscious maybe. Maybe because of the lawsuit [filed by Simon], they can’t now.
SR: I think they’re a little worried about it. They’re all very successful. I don’t think the students played a huge part in this.
Capone: I was going to ask if you got that sense.
SR: What really happened—and you can see it as a journalist—was laziness and rushing, and what happens is Protess farms this out to a private investigator who has no duty to be objective. [Protess’] letter says, “Here’s who we’re almost positive did it, find people. Build this case.” We have it in writing, and that’s what he did. Ciolino actually did his job. He did a good job as far as getting the result. It’s amazing what he made happen.
The students, they did some of the legwork, but they were used as window dressing to make it a very novel story for “20/20,” “Dateline,” and of course for CBS locally, who was like the Northwestern channel at the time. The students were made to look like they did more than they did. Sean Armbrust runs the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project; Cara Rubinski is a bureau chief for the AP; Syandene Rhodes-Pitts is a newsreader for ABC and is an anchor in Orlando; Tom McCann is a big-time Chicago lawyer. These are all successful people, and if you go to the website of their jobs, the foundation of their résumé is the Porter case; they’re proud of that.
Let me put it this way, two years ago, when I was trying to get ahold of them, it was still on their résumés. It probably still is. They’re all really successful. Probably the most bitter about all this, William Crawford, the retired Tribune reporter, says he doesn’t believe the students had any malevolence. He doesn’t think they knew what they were helping to perpetrate here, they just thought they were getting a guy out. In the grand jury, you can tell it wasn’t objective; it was just activism. Their answers made that clear. I wish somebody would talk to me.
I’m surprised Protess wouldn’t get on. He got close. Zorn tried so hard to get him to talk to us, but in the end, he didn’t trust us. Ciolino, probably against his better judgement, against any good judgement, does a lot of these interviews; I’m surprised he wouldn’t do it, but he just said, “No thanks.” Maybe they knew it wouldn’t stand up to a close look. Their answers are really sound bitey. They really are.
Capone: From the interview with Al Simon in jail, it’s clear that when you started this, you didn’t know that how it was going to end. Your idea was that this movie might stir things up, so this has to be a slightly better ending to the movie. Did you know at that point that you had your ending?
SR: Oh, no. We did not know we had our ending. That interview was before his case was even reopened. That interview is what I showed Eric Zorn in his kitchen, and the next day he said the case needs to be reopened, when he wrote that piece. A couple of months later, Simon’s attorney attempted to use the Conviction Integrity Unit to get this reopened, which is what did reopen it. Once they saw everything, they were like, “Oh my god.” But no, we did not know the ending.
As a matter of fact, it’s weird to watch the movie, because the whole tone, our music, and everything is like, something horrible happened here, and you should feel really bad about this when you walk out. And at the end, we had the staple on the ending, which is everybody’s favorite part of the movie. But all of a sudden, the music has major chords, everybody’s smiling, it’s like, “Hey. For 80 minutes, I was feeling really crappy, and now all of a sudden, I’m glad the audience gets to see part of the outcome and see this man walk out and eat a meal.” It’s not over. He needs to find a way to live and all that, and we’re filming that now; we’re doing a follow-up film.
Capone: When you were interviewing Anthony Porter, what was going through your head? Because this was the guy that we now think did this.
SR: Let me put it this way, there was a guy named Maurice Perkins, who runs a group home on the south side of Chicago—he’s the one who can find Porter. We talked to him. I thought it would add authenticity to actually have him, and we wanted good, quality shots. We didn’t want to use 20-year-old news footage of him. We wanted to show what he looked like now, and it was a softball interview. But we went to Perkins’ group home.
We were worried, because he in his mind thought, until the press conference [in which it was made clear that Porter could not be retried for the crime he was pardoned for], that he was going back to jail if we proved our point. This was his forth murder arrest. So we thought he was capable of saying, “Well, this is it,” and blowing our heads off. So our equipment helpers carrying in the lights were actually two Chicago homicide detectives, armed and ready for any contingency. That’s what we did. We had two off-duty homicide detectives as our roadies. Watching them try and put lights together was funny.
Capone: You premiered the film in New York last year, but tell me about the thoughts in your head about finally showing this here in Chicago.
SR: It’s a huge deal to me, because I don’t think it’s been honestly reported, and I think that the people with the biggest drums of ink took a side very early, and they have a vested interest in the original narrative moving forward. So I don’t think it’s been properly reported. It certainly hasn’t been assembled.
Let me give you an example: Every time Mills writes about it, he writes that Simon says he confessed for millions of dollars. It sounds so stupid and hokey because it is stupid and hokey. It happened to be something [Protess and Ciolino] threw in. They said it to everybody, that there were going to be millions of dollars of book deals, and everybody’s going to get some money. People did get money in other cases, and we proved that and we proved that they promised as much. That wasn’t the reason he confessed. They told him he was getting the death penalty, and his eyes got wide, and he believed it. He was afraid of dying. Like most people do, he had a fear of death, and that’s why he did it, but they never write that. Mills always writes “Simon confessed to get a movie deal or to be a movie star.” He’s just real glib. I believe it’s dishonest. Maybe Simon threw that in, that they made that promise, but it’s not the primary reason.
In Chicago, I see this as setting the record straight. I think that those who care enough will see it or buy it on pay-per-view. I think that they’ll see this in a way they haven’t seen it before. Like we originally thought, you couldn’t get me to confess to a murder. I’m not sure if you could, especially if I were in that state of mind.
Capone: After I saw the film and noticed the various Q&As and panels that were happening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I told them if they needed anybody to help moderate those to let me know.
SR: No, we need a moderator, because it can get ugly.
Capone: It’s an interesting mix of people. That one [on Saturday, July 11] will be the one to go to, I think.
SR: I let Eric pick his side, and we picked a phenomenal attorney. I picked Rob Warden [Executive Director, Emeritus, Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University], who’s in the middle of all of this. You saw his picture on the book with Protess. That’s fine. Here’s another opportunity for them to speak, and this time they’re taking it. In fairness, Protess and Ciolino, they can’t now, because they’re party to this lawsuit, but at least some of their guys can go there and tell us we’re wrong or whatever they’re going to do. But I don’t know what they’re going to say after that film. I don't know what the audience would believe from them after this film.
We’re going to try to keep it civil. Bill Crawford [author and retired Chicago Tribune investigative reporter] is a very passionate guy, and took this all very personally as a retired reporter. I think he was really upset when he saw half-ass work called “journalism” by the kids. It’s like, what are you teaching them? Bill always says, “When we did a story, we would go apply for jobs at a hospital and become orderlies or patient transport people, if the hospital was corrupt, and then sneak into rooms and talk to people. We would imbed ourselves for a year. We would get paid. We would actually work at the place for these exhaustive investigations.” For those students to not have pulled the original police report, and for the reporters that reported this stuff to have not done it, it just blew his mind. He hated that journalism had come down that far. You wan to know what Eric’s response to that is?
Capone: What’s that?
SR: He said, “I don’t have keys to a prison.” He said that the state’s attorney should have realized, if this was wrong, that they’re the grown ups here, and they have the keys to the jail. That’s his answer. Well, they were responding to pressure. Do you not know how big a baseball bat is, Eric? That’s part of the debate. Maybe that’s one of the questions. Who shares responsibility? The university is extremely culpable for not have provided oversight, and then when they tell the whole world in 2011 that Protess was a liar, they didn’t lift a finger to go back and look at this case.
Capone: Shawn. I’ll leave you with that. And I’ll see you in a couple of weeks when you’re here.
SR: Yeah. If you have any questions— sorry to have talked for so long.
Capone: Not at all. We covered a lot of ground here.
SR: Sure. If you need anything else, just let me know. I’m happy to clear up anything.