"Murder in the Park" is a fascinating true crime documentary concerning a highly publicized Illinois justice system failure in the early eighties. The film asserts that a former death-row inmate, freed from death in his final moments though the efforts of student investigative journalists, was actually guilty. And the man fingered as the real murderer was innocent and incarcerated for over a dozen years. How could such a grave miscarriage of justice go undetected, especially given intense press coverage and ostensible scrutiny?
A Murder and an Innocent Man Freed from Death Row
Anthony Porter was a black man convicted of murdering a young black couple in a public Chicago park in 1982. Prior to this case, Chicago newspapers had been highly critical of the police, regularly alleging stories of police corruption and judicial malfeasance. After being imprisoned for 17 years and asked for his last meal request, Porter was miraculously freed from prison moments before execution as a result of heroic efforts by Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and his students in the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The school's Medill Justice Project "is an award-winning national investigative journalism center that examines potentially wrongful convictions, probes systemic criminal justice issues and conducts groundbreaking research." Protess and his students proffered evidence that Porter was innocent and that the crime was committed by another man, Alstory Simon. In a taped confession, Simon admitted to committing the double homicide and was sentenced to 37 years in prison.
Joy and happiness ensued. Dozens of shutters clicked from cameras capturing the moment Porter walked out of prison and into the jubilant arms of Protess and his small group of undergraduate investigators. This highly publicized story and the ongoing evisceration of the police and justice system led the current governor of Chicago to halt executions indefinitely. And as a result of this landmark case, the death penalty was eventually abolished in the state of Illinois in 2011.
Journalism 101: The Search for the Truth
There was one problem. Investigation subsequent to Porter's release indicated that he was guilty. A significant amount of the evidence provided by the students turned out to be inaccurate, unreliable and there were questions of Protess using highly questionable tactics. A park structure which the students claimed blocked the view of a witness to the murder (making his testimony unreliable) was actually built after the date of the murder.
As the details unravel, it becomes evident that Simon, convicted and imprisoned for 15 years, was actually innocent and likely framed for the crime. The person who captured and provided the confession video was Professor Protess' own hire - private investigator, Paul Ciolino. The tactics Ciolino admitted to using in extracting Simon's confession are disturbing. And the almost wanton neglect of the facts by the justice system to pander to public demand is embarrassing.
Protess is accused of withholding documents that contain exculpatory evidence of Alstory Simon's innocence. While Protess insists repeatedly that, as journalists, they only advocate for the truth and not a specific outcome, it becomes readily apparent that even the most ostensibly ethical journalists may have ulterior motives. And if he had a noble cause - such as a liberal crusade against the death penalty - would its abolition justify the means of framing an innocent man?
A Compelling Movie Covering a True Crime
"A Murder in the Park" is the flip side of the "The Central Park Five", also a documentary film which examines police and justice system corruption. The fascination in watching this film is the journey, not the knowledge of the basic facts. Some of the most disturbing evidence is presented in the latter half of the film, which should keep any viewer interested for its full 91 minute run time. Most compelling are the interviews of key persons affected by this incident - the maligned police officers, the guilty man, the crushed and framed accused, key witnesses - one making a dying declaration, the shady PI and David Protess.
Prior to the film, Northwestern University issued a statement concerning Professor David Protess and his dismissal. Subsequent to the release of "A Murder in the Park", Alstory Simon filed a lawsuit against the school and others involved. They say truth is stranger than fiction. And it often provides for even more compelling cinema.
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