Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gatekeeper Zorn opens the door


Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who I have described as the unofficial "gatekeeper" of wrongful prosecution stories, came out this morning in favor of a full evidentiary hearing for Alstory Simon (right), the man who replaced Anthony Porter (left) in prison.

Zorn had supported a hearing in his blog but his call for a hearing in his more well-read column represents a thaw in the media-freeze on the biggest story you've never read about -- the very real possibility that the Porter exoneration and all its national attention was a fraud.

I have written extensively on this case here.

Zorn is a gatekeeper of sorts because once he decides to write about a wrongful prosecution case the rest of the media often gets interested. We'll see what happens here -- Cook County Judge Evelyn Clay is scheduled to rule next week on whether Simon deserves a new hearing.

I don't often agree with Zorn's portrayal of wrongful prosecution cases I've been involved with, and I note today he omits many compelling new developments in the Simon case in framing today's column. Yet I give him great credit for several concessions that you won't hear from many journalists.

First, he concedes the story makes him uncomfortable because it conflicts with what he's previously written.

But it's difficult for me to back Simon's effort, largely due to my own conflicts of interest:

Simon's factual guilt in the slayings is a key assumption in many of the commentaries I've written about capital punishment in the last seven years. It was Simon's confession in 1999 that led almost immediately to the high-profile exoneration of Anthony Porter, who had been sent to Death Row after being convicted in those slayings. And his exoneration played a big role in death penalty reforms in Illinois, the mass commutation of condemned prisoners and the moratorium on executions that continues today.
Second, he notices it's important not to abandon reason and principle just because he doesn't like the storyline.

But if I've learned anything in more than a dozen years of banging my shoe on the table about the fallibilities of our legal system, it's that beliefs and conflicts of interest can be poisonous to the search for truth, no matter how good anyone's intentions.

And that the first step toward injustice always involves people abandoning principle when it threatens to conflict with what they "know" to be true.
Zorn's begrudging call for a new hearing in this case ought to be a clarion call to the rest of the media to quit ignoring the blockbuster of the year.

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