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Students recount freeing innocent from death row

Sunday, February 07, 1999

By Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two local journalists played vital roles in uncovering new evidence that freed a Chicago man who spent 16 years on death row for two murders.

Anthony Porter embraces his mother, Clara, upon his return home from prison on Friday. (Mike Fisher, Associated Press) 

For four months, after the convicted murderer got a stay of execution, the journalists raced against the clock, frantically trying to find witnesses but running into dead ends.

All the while, they had to balance their obsession with conflicting obligations. That's because the heroes of this story are college students, who started their crusade as a class exercise.

The convict is Anthony Porter, 43, who was found guilty in the 1982 murders of Jerry Hillard, 18, and Marilyn Green, 19. On Friday, a Chicago judge freed Porter because of news reports that called into question the evidence against Porter and pointed to another suspect. Porter is still charged with the killings but prosecutors are investigating the new evidence.

Porter's freedom was gained by a most unlikely set of circumstances.

Cara Rubinsky - "Police told reporters that Anthony Porter killed these people ... If someone had dug deeper 16 years ago, all of this might not have happened."  

In September, two days before he was scheduled to die by injection, the Illinois Supreme Court stopped the execution. Defense attorneys had argued that Porter has an IQ of 51 and could not understand what was happening to him or help in his appeals.

When Porter was scheduled to die, Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess wasn't going to use the case in his Media and Capital Punishment course. But when the court stayed the execution, he assigned the case to four seniors, including Cara Rubinsky of Penn Hills and Lori D'Angelo of Baldwin Township.

The class gives students an in-depth look at how the criminal justice system works and how news media report on capital punishment and practical experience in using public documents and interviewing people.

D'Angelo is a graduate of Seton-LaSalle High School in Mt. Lebanon. She has a double major in journalism and English and she plans to attend graduate school in creative writing.

Rubinsky graduated from Allderdice High School in 1995. She traces her interest in writing to Kathy Howard, a teacher at Reizenstein Middle School. Last summer, she interned at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she was known as quiet, fast-learning and industrious.

Initially, Rubinsky said yesterday, the focus of their work was on Porter's mental fitness. During the first month, they researched the law, psychology and psychiatry, and intelligence issues.

"When we first looked into it, it looked like he was guilty," D'Angelo said. "We were just questioning his competency."

Rubinsky, D'Angelo, Shawn Armbrust from Milwaukee, and Tom McCann of Park Ridge, Ill., also steeped themselves in court records. And at their professor's urging, they went to Washington Park where the crime occurred and re-enacted it as described in court documents.

One student stood where the only eyewitness said he stood. Others took up positions where the murder victims were found. They discovered that the distance and a bad sight line through a wrought iron fence would have made it all but impossible for the witness to recognize Porter. And their test was performed not in the middle of the night when the crime occurred, but in daylight.

They also noted inconsistencies in trial records. The witness testified that the murderer held the gun in his left hand. Porter is right-handed.

They located the witness. Private investigator Paul Ciolino, who assists Protess, and one of the students confronted him. He recanted his testimony and said police had pressured him into naming Porter.

They wanted to know more about what happened in the park and needed to find more witnesses. Two names had cropped up in police affidavits - Inez Jackson and her husband Alstory Simon.

They couldn't find Jackson but they knew where Simon lived in Milwaukee. They thought he was involved in some way but weren't sure. For a couple of days in class, Rubinsky and Armbrust role-played interviewing techniques, anticipating what he would say and how they would deal with him.

During final exams week, Rubinsky and Armbrust went to Simon's home. Protess stayed outside in a car.

"For this interview we played the dumb college students," Rubinsky said. "We didn't go in there thinking we were going to extract a confession. We went in to see what he knows, saying that we were looking into the stuff that had happened on the South Side. We wanted to be nonthreatening."

Simon denied any connection to the murders, but he told conflicting stories. The students concluded that he was lying and was involved in some way.

They went home for their holiday break. In Milwaukee, Armbrust continued to search public records for leads on Inez Jackson.

When classes resumed in January, the students continued their work in an investigative journalism class taught by Protess. D'Angelo dropped off the team to take another course, and students Erica LeBorgne of New Jersey and Syandene Rhodes-Pitts of Houston joined the team.

Throughout, the clock was running on Porter. The competency hearing had been rescheduled several times and the students constantly felt "the fire under us," Rubinsky said.

They were obsessed. "We were willing to do pretty much anything to get to the truth of it," Rubinsky said.

They needed to find Jackson, the only other known witness still living. Three members of the team tracked down a nephew of Jackson in prison. He provided a list of friends and relatives.

They kept looking but had no luck. Another competency hearing was coming up and they were getting discouraged. "We needed to find Inez," Rubinsky said. "The four of us decided to just go to Milwaukee and comb the city for her."

Two of the students discovered a marriage license that identified Jackson as Margaret Simon. Rubinsky and Armbrust knocked on doors at Jackson's last known addresses. They found a boarded-up house and other dead ends.

Finally, a niece of Jackson's that other students identified from court records told them where she could be found.

Just as the sun was setting, they knocked on her door.

They told Jackson that their professor had a message for her, from an incarcerated relative, and they set up an appointment.

On Jan. 29, Protess, investigator Ciolino, Rubinsky and Armbrust interviewed Jackson. The students mostly watched.

"It was a tremendous thing, watching them," Rubinsky said. For 45 minutes, Protess and Ciolino chatted with Jackson about her life and her problems. When she talked about physical abuse, she avoided the men's eyes and looked at the students.

As she talked about her husband, Alstory Simon, with whom she had not lived for several years, Protess and Ciolino shifted the conversation to the murders. They told her what they knew.

"Her eyes dropped and she doesn't say anything," Rubinsky said. When she talked, she recounted how she had sat in the park bleachers while Simon argued with Jerry Hillard about drug money. She said her husband shot Hillard, shot Green, and then dragged her away and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

Her description of events fit the facts of the case, Rubinsky said.

"I was sort of shocked. I was actually sitting here and she's telling us what happened. It's something I will always remember."

They videotaped her story.

That weekend, the team discussed strategy. On Monday, Rubinsky attended Porter's competency hearing. "I was thinking to myself, this is a farce. They're trying to prove that he's dumb so they shouldn't execute him. And we know he's innocent."

The team had released the videotape to CBS News, and word about the new evidence was already circulating. The team met with the prosecutor, who filed for a delay in the competency issue while he investigated.

Alstory Simon had not been arrested and the journalists worried for Inez Jackson's safety. They decided to put her up in a hotel in Chicago and take her to the prosecutor's office.

Ciolino went to Milwaukee and stopped by Simon's house first to confront him. Simon again denied any involvement, according to Rubinsky. But the television was on and CBS News broadcast Jackson's videotaped story.

"He collapsed. He confessed," Rubinsky said.

Simon claimed he shot the two in self defense when he thought Hillard was reaching for a gun.

The stay of execution, the delays in scheduling Porter's competency hearing, the exhilarating discoveries and the frustrating dead ends and the incredible timing of a news program - "there's been a certain karma to this case," Rubinsky said.

D'Angelo said she learned that good journalism involves endless document searches and spending hour after hour studying facts. "It's just plain hard work. It's sad that nobody had taken the time to do this before."

Rubinsky said it would be a mistake to conclude that the criminal justice system corrected itself. "It was a bunch of outsiders who corrected it."

She learned interviewing skills from pros and gained confidence in her own abilities. She also learned that journalists often don't look any further than the official version of a case.

"Police told reporters that Anthony Porter killed these people. ... If someone had dug deeper 16 years ago, all of this might not have happened."

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