A new lawsuit condemns Northwestern University and a former star professor central to Illinois' history of wrongful convictions and exonerations, alleging the university allowed a “culture of lawlessness” and unethical conduct among faculty and journalism students who worked to free inmates, the Chicago Tribune reports. The suit seeking $40 million was filed in federal court for Alstory Simon, who spent 15 years in prison after he confessed to a double-homicide in Chicago. The confession led to the release of Anthony Porter from death row for the 1982 slayings. The case is one of the most significant in Illinois history, because it helped prompt then-Gov. George Ryan to halt executions, a step toward the abolition of the death penalty in 2011. The case was upended in October when prosecutors threw out Simon's conviction, citing questions about the methods used to obtain his confession.
The suit alleges that former Prof. David Protess, a private investigator who worked with him and a lawyer conspired to frame Simon in an effort to free Porter from prison. The suit alleges Protess and the investigator manufactured bogus evidence, coaxed false statements from witnesses, intimidated Simon into confessing and set him up with a lawyer who coached him to plead guilty. The suit says the university allowed unethical acts by students and Protess, who taught investigative reporting at Northwestern's prestigious journalism school and founded the Medill Innocence Project, a key engine of the often successful local movement to unearth injustices. Investigator Paul Ciolino called the suit frivolous, and the university denied wrongdoing.