For almost eight minutes, “A Murder in the Park” seems like it will tell the story of a Chicago man convicted of a double murder he did not commit.
The documentary outlines the 1982 murder of two teenagers in Washington Park, the arrest of Anthony Porter two days later, Porter’s exoneration in 1999 after he was two days away from the death penalty and the imprisonment of another man, Alstory Simon, who confessed to the crime.
“How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief except for the students of journalism at Northwestern University?” then-Gov. George Ryan said about Porter when he commuted the sentences in 2003 of all death-row inmates, audio that is replayed at the start of the film.
“How the hell does that happen?”
The journalism students Ryan referenced were led by David Protess, a professor at the time who launched Northwestern’s Medill Innocence Project in which students studied the cases of death-row inmates.
In February 1999, a few weeks after Porter’s release, one of Protess’ students told a grand jury that the purpose of Protess’ class was “to find the truth.”
When Porter walked free, those students had seemingly succeeded.
“There was only one problem though,” attorney and documentary co-producer Andrew M. Hale says in the film.
“Anthony Porter killed those two people. It was one big lie.”
For viewers unfamiliar with Porter’s case, that dramatic turn will provide the same surprise many Chicagoans felt when Porter was freed, an event that was one of several factors that led state lawmakers to suspend and later abolish the death penalty.
“They opened the jail doors for the one guy and put the other guy in,” said James G. Sotos of The Sotos Law Firm LLC in Itasca, one of three attorneys now representing Simon.
Last year, Simon was also deemed an innocent man. He was exonerated and released from prison in October.
The 33-year saga spins a complex web.
When Cleveland filmmaker Shawn Rech decided to tackle the story as his next project, he knew nothing about it.
“It’s fascinating how the system makes mistakes,” said Rech, who prior to the documentary produced a television series called “Crime Stoppers Case Files” which told stories of unsolved murders in four regions: Northeast Ohio, South Florida, Southern California and the Chicago area.
After working in television, Rech and his co-director moved into filmmaking. Their goal was to make a “traditional wrongful conviction film,” Rech said.
That’s when Hale, who helped fund the Chicago show, told Rech about the cases of Porter and Simon.
“It was a huge challenge to tell this story because there are so many twists and turns,” Rech said. “You could make an eight-hour movie about this if you wanted to.”
Rech’s film — released in New York in June and playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center through July 23 — weaves new interviews, archived interviews, news footage, newspaper and magazine headlines, animated graphics and live re-enactments to tell the story.
The filmmakers even interviewed Porter, with whom they connected through a man who runs a halfway house where Porter stays. They paid the man and Porter $500 each.
Rech described that as a “softball interview” early in the process.
“I thought it was important to have him in the film,” Rech said. “We didn’t get confrontational. I let him tell his story the way he wanted to say it.”
Porter also appears in archived footage, as does Protess, who along with his students declined to be interviewed for the film.
“He said, ‘There’s no way, you’re not going to make me look bad, I have nothing to gain by being in your film,’” Rech said about Protess.
“It was smart, I guess, to not get involved, because it looks like ‘Hey, those guys didn’t get a chance to speak.’ We gave them every chance to speak. And they spoke for 15 years.”
While the filmmakers worked, attorneys Sotos and Terry A. Ekl of Ekl, Williams & Provenzale LLC in Lisle were attempting to free Simon, whose confession and subsequent recantation are among the film’s many tangled threads.
“I hope the film will cause people to understand the need for accountability of everyone who is interacting with the criminal justice system — whether they be police officers, prosecutors or journalists,” Sotos said.
Not included in the film’s many interviews was sole practitioner Kenneth N. Flaxman, who represented Porter in the middle of his prison stay, filing his post-conviction and habeas corpus petitions.
Flaxman did not know about the film until contacted for this story. He believes, and has always believed, that Simon was indeed guilty.
“Everybody in the community thought that Mr. Simon had killed Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard,” Flaxman said.
His theory — which came from the mothers of the slain — was that Simon killed Hillard on purpose and Green accidentally after an argument over drugs Hillard was supposedly selling for Simon. It’s a theory the film also presents.
“It was the word on the street coming true when he confessed,” Flaxman said.
“I had thought that (Porter) was innocent the whole time that I was representing him, and I was thrilled that justice had triumphed.”
He watched the film and said he was “fascinated” by it.
“It had a very clear point of view. If I was representing Mr. Simon in his civil case, I would want everybody in the jury to see the movie because it makes his case with lawyer-like precision,” Flaxman said.
Flaxman’s name turns up in a 10-page letter Sotos and Ekl wrote in October 2013 to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita M. Alvarez outlining evidence they said proved Simon’s innocence and asking for his release.
That release came one year later, with the filmmakers on-hand to document Simon exiting state prison, giving their movie a new ending.
The ongoing story now continues in a civil suit filed in February in federal court on behalf of Simon against Northwestern, Protess, a private investigator who worked with Protess and Simon’s original defense attorney Jack P. Rimland of Jack P. Rimland and Associates.
Representing Simon in that suit are Sotos, Ekl and Hale, whose company Whole Truth Films co-produced the documentary.
Several claims in the suit are re-enacted in the film, including the allegation that private investigator Paul Ciolino — while working for Protess — coerced Simon into his 1999 video-recorded confession.
Ciolino described the interview in a Chicago Magazine article in 2002 as a “bull-rush” of the confused, intoxicated Simon at Simon’s home. Both the suit and the film allege that Ciolino and Protess then connected Simon with Rimland, Simon’s original defense lawyer who represented him when he confessed to the murders.
The suit asks for $40 million in punitive damages and alleges that Protess, Rimland and Ciolino conspired “to frame Simon and free Porter.”
“I don’t think these guys are co-conspirators or crooks, but it just doesn’t meet our standards that the guy who took your confession was friends with your lawyer,” said Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who is interviewed in the film due to several years of writing about the case.
After interviewing Simon in Jacksonville Correctional Center, the filmmakers contacted Zorn in 2013 to show him footage of that interview. Zorn was moved not by Simon’s claim of innocence but by Rimland’s apparent conflict-of-interest, a sentiment he expressed shortly after in a column.
“The point is no longer whether Protess got it wrong,” Zorn said. “The question in the lawsuit is that Protess deliberately got it wrong. And I don’t see any evidence of him being that devious, that treacherous.
“And it would also rely on him getting an incredible amount of luck.”
After a yearlong investigation conducted by Alvarez’s office, Simon walked free.
Ciolino and Rimland declined interview requests for the film and could not be reached for this article. Protess’ former students, Alvarez and Hale also could not be reached for comment.
Today, Porter and Simon are free and no one is in prison for the deaths of Green and Hillard.
“For anyone at this point … to say ‘I know for sure what happened in the park that night,’ I think that’s a stretch,” Zorn said.