The Coerced Confession Project?


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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39 Responses

  1. This does seem very disturbing, if the facts are true. There are still a few things unanswered. I read the article, and it wasn’t clear to me how Stingl got his facts. The best I could find is “But that neat and clean narrative unraveled with the discovery of how the confession by Simon was obtained” with little mention of who made or attested to the “discovery,” aside from a recanted confession and a few other statements.

    One concern I have is that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has had a lot of very public tussles with the Innocence Project, one of which involved Alvarez’s (or perhaps it was her immediate predecessor?) attempt to seize the IP’s records. It’s hard for me to parse the motivations and the truth behind these tussles, and I’m not sure what to think about them. But for what it’s worth, here’s one account from the NYT that at least seems to discuss the different views of those involved:

    A very cynical take would interpret Alvarez signing on to the release of Simon as a way to make the IP look bad. I admit that I have even less evidence for my proposed “cynical take” than Stingl seems to have for his representation of the facts, so take what I say with as many grains of salt as you need.

    All that said, if the IP did anything like what Stingl says they did, then shame on the IP. And shame on the government for cooperating with the “coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards [tactics, which were] were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon’s constitutionally protected rights.”Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    Christ, now we have allegations that folks who work to protect other folks railroaded by the system might be as corrupt as the system? This needs to be investigated further so the truth comes out.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Damon says:

      I’m not surprised at all. I’ve seen similar workings in the domestic abuse industry (run a visitation center, and get yourself appointed GAL for children, and instead of supporting things that ease the family tension, escalate them so that they have to pay for visitation at your visitation center) and in environmental work (take the most extreme examples of something and use it as the norm, thus misleading all your supporters about the real state of whatever issue is at hand.)

      When you make work for yourself with some cause, there is always incentive to increase market share.Report

  3. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    What I find interesting is that both men, Porter and Simon, were convicted “beyond a reasonable doubt” on the basis of evidence, eyewitness testimony in one case and confession on the other, that we objectively know to be less than totally reliable. How many times has the IP secured the release of someone convicted in the same way Simon was?

    If this is all true it seems to me to say more about the way we secure convictions than anything else. It’s disturbing to say the least that the IP resorted to these means but in a way it sort of proves their larger assertion. Often what gets presented to a jury in a trial is far less than the whole story.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    A friend posted about this on facebook.

    There are some mistakes in the JS article. The organization at Northwestern is called the Center on Wrongful Convictions and that is different than the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is based out of Cardozo and the University of Virginia. The author of said column is using Innocence Project as a blanket term for organizations that help people on death row and that seems very politically oriented. The whole piece seems like it wants to gleefully take a hit at the idea of do-gooders not really being do-gooders and smacks of being able to take glee at liberals.

    I don’t get why it is valid criticism of the Innocence Project to say that the Innocence Project makes the system “look worse than it really is.” That kind of criticism smacks of a pro-prosecution and pro-cop. What is the logical conclusion of saying that the Innocence Project makes the system look bad. I think the subtext of the statement is “The Innocence Project should fold and not be doing what it does even if they are exonerating people who were wrongfully put on death row because of overzealous prosecution and shoddy police work. It just makes my side look bad and I just don’t like it. So these dudes need to fry to save my very fragile self-esteem.”

    This what is so galling about the idea of American Exceptionalism in so many ways, they seem emotionally unable to handle the idea that the system is not perfect or that not all is well in the United States of America. I don’t understand why one little bit of criticism causes this group so much butt hurt. One little suggestion that we can do things differently (like have universal single-payer healthcare) seems to send the American Exceptional crowd into a spiral of rage, doubt, and depression over the idea that someone thinks “Hey, America can do something different/better. Do they think we are a sham?”

    Hanley mentions this when he gets student criticisms when he makes negative or critical statements about the police and prosecutors. Students dislike Hanley’s statements because “my uncle is a cop”.

    Why are there so many eggshells when it comes to American exceptionalism and defending the police and prosecutors?Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Why are there so many eggshells when it comes to American exceptionalism and defending the police and prosecutors?

      Because Americans in general, and law and order folks in particular, are tougher than everyone else.

      Wait…that doesn’t…huh…well, um…Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Yeah, ok, right, putting facts in context is objectively pro-cop. (btw, did you actually read the links, or just launch off of WillT’s characterization of them)

      And what’s all that stuff about universal healthcare? What the flying fish has any of this to do with universal healthcare?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

        Say what you will about people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for decades, but at least they have healthcare.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Kolohe says:

        @jaybird I have a friend convicted in CA who was, when the SC cam down on overcrowding, released for lack of health care. So no, they don’t always have health care.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:


        I read the links.

        I don’t think anyone including people at the Innocence Project doubt that there are people out there that commit horrible crimes.

        This does not change the fact that being an ADA or DA is often a great stepping stone to bigger political office and there are all sorts of incentives in the system that make DAs go for as many convictions as possible. It also does not change the fact that police are humans and like all humans tend to zone in on a suspect and then stop looking at all other evidence pointing to a possible other suspect because it makes their jobs harder and it is just more work man.

        Most civil cases settle and most criminal cases plea. I can see why an innocent person would take 5-10 instead of risking 50 or longer.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        The valid criticisms (which in his own words were ‘quibbles’ elucidated by Web were that transparency matters and context matters, because getting the diagnosis right is how one fixes systemic problems. Otherwise your just grandstanding. (Though, granted, for the 200 or so people exonerated, they’re like the starfish in the fable.)

        And when an org decides that ‘the greater good’ must be served, well, that’s how we got the erroneous convictions in the first place. With all the talk of misconceptions and sloppy journalism (which are correct), let us not lose sight of the fact a guy was in prison, and now is not, and that guy was fingered by the people that are supposed to be in the business of getting innocent people out of jail. This story should result in a higher reading on the outrage meter over the reading given by a Steven Hayne or his ilk, not a lower one.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Kolohe says:

        Again, the only evidence we have that the confession was coerced by Protess or anyone associated with him are the words of the guy’s attorney and implication by the Cooke County state’s attorney, who has a long, acrimonious relationship with Protess, and who didn’t seem interested in the innocence of other people because Protess was looking into their cases, making her go on the defensive.

        It may turn out that Protess really did coerce the guy’s confession, but we don’t know that, we have no evidence of that, and so that part of it is not really a story yet.

        That the Cooke County state’s attorney office got the same case wrong twice should be, though.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      The standard response is race but that doesn’t really work for me. America isn’t the only country with this problem. From what I’ve read Switzerland has it in spades to. Switzerland is much less powerful than the United States culturally, economically, and political so people complain about Swiss exceptionalism less. Switzerland like the United States has long been a very conservative country by Western democratic standards. Women didn’t get the right to vote the 1970s in Swiss federal elections and 1991 in cantonal elections if I’m remembering correctly. It took the Swiss ages to adopt universal healthcare and other welfare state measures compared to other European countries.

      My favorite answer is that both Swiss and America never really had an aristocracy in the way that other Western countries did. Both countries had an upper class that used to dominate the political order through limited sufferage but in both countries mass democracy was implemented without much in the way of class conflict or violence compared to France, Italy, Spain, or even Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries.* Basically, America and Switizerland democratized while leaving the pre-democratic social order more or less in tact. This led to a sort of reverance to the just created democratic political structure that doesn’t exist in other countries, which feeds into American exceptionalism. Leaving the pre-existing social order in take also leads to a sort of apprehension of people who would challenge social norms in both countries.

      *The United Kingdom might not have had spectacularly violent revolutions against the aristocray but the British peers and gentry did have to be rendered politiically and economically impotent in order to reach full democractization. This process was a long one that lasted from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.Report

    • Avatar Mo in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Is there a group that doesn’t get butthurt if you criticize them? It may be magnified with law enforcement because they used to be placed on a pedestal culturally, but now that we’re not in the scary high crime era of the 80s and early 90s, they’ve lost that shine.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Agreeing strongly. And we’ve all seen horrible abuses which by some stroke of luck were documented and revealed, which resulted in no changes to the system at all, not even the punishment of the actors involved.Report

  5. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I’m reminded of when I taught a law and society course and showed the students the documentary about the West Memphis Three. They were outraged at how the kids were railroaded. Then I showed them the second documentary, which on sketchy evidence points the finger at one of the victim’s parents. They were equally outraged…not at the documentary trying to railroad that suspect, but at the fact that that guy hadn’t yet been convicted. Intellectually I got them to see how they were being contradictory, but they were open about how, emotionally, they were still persuaded the guy was guilty, and even that they wished they were on a jury so they could vote to convict him.

    So, without knowing whether this particular story holds water or not, I think that human nature makes it–regrettably–all too possible.Report

  6. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    I think the fact that the DA was willing to toss a conviction over a confession obtained by others both speaks to the power such wrongful conviction groups have, as well as to a major flaw in the evidence we accept.

    And I’m with Zic, anytime you have people with a cause they feel strongly about, and the power to run with it, you have the risk of over-zealous behavior. This is why groups are supposed to have oversight that is dispassionate.Report

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    The story is sloppy. For example,

    When his abuses came to light, Protess was suspended by Northwestern and has since retired from there.

    In a story that provides no real evidence for what it claims Protess did, this sentence clearly ties his suspension and retirement to the case under discsussion, when in fact he was suspended for lying to the university lawyers about information he had provided to an attorney concerning a completely separate case — a case, it should be noted, in which a man who was almost certainly innocent was convicted and ultimately died in prison, in part at least because the Cooke County state’s attorney was able to challenge the work Protess and his students did to show that McKinney was wrongfully convicted, because of Protess’ behavior with university lawyers.

    I don’t know whether Simon is innocent, but he confessed to the crime multiple times to multiple people, under multiple circumstances, so it makes little sense to put the conviction all on Protess and his investigator. It is clear that he was poorly represented leading up to his conviction, in part because the lawyer representing him had a major conflict of interest (he was a lawyer who worked with Protess), and that he had a major drug problem that probably left him less than competent, but there’s a strange irony to the Cooke County state’s attorney suggesting that her office’s past failures (granted, before she was there) are someone else’s responsibility, and actually show that her office isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be.

    I mean, “Look, we failed on this particular case not once, but twice, so we’re not as bad as they say we are” is one seriously awful argument.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    When we, as a society, accept that it is not possible to make an omelette without having a few eggs broken, we shouldn’t be surprised at all of the broken eggs.

    At the very least, we should stop pointing at the broken eggs as if they were evidence for how hard the cooks were trying to make an omelette.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Sometimes you have to make shortcuts and cut corners in order to make sure that the good guys are kept safe from the bad guys being put in prison.”

    I’m guessing that that’s the description on the menu, anyway.Report

  10. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Saul makes an important point. This is a slander on the Innocence Project, because the people being accused, even if guilty, have no association with it. That’s worth noting in the body of the post.Report

    • I’ve been looking into it with what little time I have and am having a bit of trouble. Medill’s Innocence Project is actually a thing, and was a thing Protess was involved in. The CWC is apparently also a thing, and both are run out of Northwestern.

      So it might be a different IP, though oddly enough until this I actually thought the “real” one was based out of Northwestern.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Will Truman says:

        Protess started the Chicago Innocence Project when he retired a couple years ago in the wake of his deceiving the university’s lawyers on the McKinnon case. Before that, he was not part of an organization called the Innocence Project that I know of.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Will Truman says:

        The New York Times calls Protess “The founder and driving force behind the Medill Innocence Project”, whereas, as Saul points out, the Innocence Project proper is headquartered at Cardozo.

        Note also that this isn’t entirely a new story. The NYT piece I linked is from 2011, when questions about Protess’s methods had already led him to leave Northwestern and head yet another group, the Chicago Innocence Project.

        And one more: the web site of the Innocence Project proper lists two independent groups at Northwestern that do similar things: the Center on Wrongful Convictions, associaed with the law school, and the Medill Justice Project, presumably from its name associated with the school of journalism.Report

      • Here’s a bit of what I found (an article from 2011):

        Mr. Protess, who taught at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University, was the founder and driving force behind the Medill Innocence Project, which was instrumental in exonerating at least 12 wrongly convicted defendants and freeing them from prison, including five who were on death row in Illinois, and in prompting then-governor George Ryan to clear the rest of death row in 2003.

        The MIP is now called the Medill Justice Project (and here is a link to the organization itself calling itself the Innocence Project), which is listed separately from the CWC on the website of Innocence Project (NY). It looks like CWC is run out of the law school, while MIP/MJP is run out of the journalism school, with the former based out of Chicago and the latter based out of Evanston. I think?Report

      • Well, one of us wasted some effort.. 🙂Report

      • Anyway, I’m perfectly willing to append a clarification. It’s just that I haven’t been quite sure what to say. Should I just say “This is an Innocence Project based out of Illinois, rather than the better-known one based out of New York”?

        (Like I said, I have always associated the IP with Northwestern. Probably because of Hurricane and George Ryan. Maybe it’s precisely their ability to gain publicity that got them in trouble here. Or maybe, as Chris says, their role here is actually less dramatic than some of the coverage suggests.)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Will Truman says:

        I’d say something like

        The “Innocence Project” referred to in the linked piece is the Medill Innocence Project, affiliated with the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and since renamed the Medill Justice Project. It is a different organization from the actual Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

        And I do have to wonder how many kids are punished for copying someone else’s work, when all they did is innocently follow the same Google links 🙂Report

      • I’ve added it to the top of the post.

        Incidentally, I ran across this, which explains the relationship between MIP and CWC:

        Protess’s class had been investigating the case since 2003, and by 2006 Protess felt his students had gathered enough evidence—including recantations by key witnesses who had implicated McKinney—to prove McKinney’s innocence. Accordingly, Protess authorized the sharing of certain investigative materials with the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, which he had cofounded as the legal side of the Medill Innocence Project. In 2008, defense attorneys filed a petition asking that McKinney’s conviction be overturned.

        The article actually opens talking about the Porter case (the case that the Simon confession undermined). This was apparently a high point. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the whole thing, so I have a question for those more familiar with this high-profile case: With the confession retracted, are we still pretty sure that Porter didn’t do it? Or was there other evidence?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Will Truman says:

        @will-truman that article’s a pretty good explanation of the case I was discussing above, that is the one that got Protess fired in essence (he retired, with a settlement, but he wasn’t going to teach at Northwestern again). In the end, the greatest tragedy was not that Protess got fired — he seriously fished up — but that the person in the case he was working on was almost certainly innocent, and died in prison, because the Cooke County state’s attorney, the very one who is now accusing Protess of coercing a confession, was able to make the case about Protess and not about the actual guilt or innocence of the man in prison.

        In other words, if Protess did coerce those confessions, all it shows is that neither the Cooke County state’s attorney nor Protess is particularly interested in actual justice.Report

  11. Avatar Barry says:

    Mike: “And I do have to wonder how many kids are punished for copying someone else’s work, when all they did is innocently follow the same Google links :-)”

    True that, but you have to understand that if a student is not even going to put some effort into sorta rewriting it, then they should get a C 🙂Report