The Rescue of Anthony Porter
Innocent on Death Row

Revolutionary Worker #995, February 21, 1999

Since 1983, home for Anthony Porter had been a death row prison cell no bigger than the average bathroom. 23 hours a day. Every day. Last March, he was only 50 hours away from death when his execution was stayed by the Illinois State Supreme Court. A hearing was set to determine if Anthony Porter was mentally competent to comprehend his own fate. When the time for the hearing arrived, so did an unexpected twist. A group of college journalism students had uncovered new evidence that exonerated Anthony--including the videotaped confession of Alstory Simon, who admitted committing the shootings that Anthony had been convicted of. Two days later, Anthony Porter walked out from behind prison walls, into the embrace of family, friends and supporters. After nearly 17 years, he was finally going home.

The story of Anthony Porter is the story of far too many who struggle to survive in the tombs of America's prisons and death rows. There are political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Geronimo ji Jaga whose fight for justice has been taken up by the masses. There are cases that have made the news like the Ford Height Four--Willie Rainge, Kenny Adams, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams--or Alejandro Hernandez, Rolando Cruz, and Randall Adams. There are those who are known only to their loved ones. Some were targeted because they are Black or Latino and were the most convenient fall guy for the police. Others were chosen because they represented a threat to the system. All were framed, railroaded and sentenced by the courts to rot or die.

Anthony Porter was one of those who escaped the hangman. He became the tenth former Illinois death row prisoner, and the 76th in the United States, to be proven innocent since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977. He survived not due to the system but because a mix of many people came together--a university professor and his class, anti-death penalty activists and journalists, conscientious lawyers and family members who refused to stop fighting for justice--and Anthony's own refusal to surrender. All this made the outcome of Anthony's ordeal a celebration, and not a funeral. And his release has sparked another round of controversy around the death penalty and prosecutorial abuse. His story raises, once again, serious questions about the nature of a system that frames up and executes innocent people--and what it will take to put an end to this state of affairs.


Anthony Porter's ordeal began in August of 1982, shortly after two teenagers, Marilyn Green and her fiancee Terry Hilliard, were gunned down at the Washington Park swimming pool on Chicago's south side. Police claimed to have stopped Anthony fleeing the park, but they found no gun, nor did they do any tests, and they let him go. Anthony had a number of arrests and was in his lawyer's words, "one of the usual suspects." After Anthony heard that the cops were looking for him, he decided to go to a police station to clear his name. The next time his family saw him, he was behind bars.

The cops wouldn't listen to his story, Anthony explained in a televised interview. "They just beat me down with a phone book, trying to get me to sign papers. Just stomp me down--Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!--knock me out, then wake me back up. I was asking why I was deserving this. I said, `Man I come to volunteer to see what's going on, trying to clear my name."'

Police treated Anthony as if he was already guilty, and ignored all evidence to the contrary. The witnesses who saw two people run from the crime scene: ignored. Statements from Marilyn Green's mother Offie Lee Green, informing police of her suspicions about Alstory Simon, the man who later confessed: disregarded. Incredibly, the only time police visited Simon was to show him and his girlfriend mug shots of Anthony Porter for identification. Information was manufactured as well. One of the two prosecution eyewitnesses, William Taylor, did not even see who did the shooting. After police threatened, harassed and intimidated him, Taylor changed his story to one that implicated Anthony Porter.

This was the house of lies that prosecutors built their case on, and under these conditions, Anthony's conviction was a forgone conclusion. Defense was almost non-existent. Anthony's lawyer--paid less than half his $10,000 fee, did a less than a half-assed job, failing to even meet with Anthony until just before and just after court proceedings. In October 1983, little more than a year after his arrest, Anthony Porter was found guilty, sentenced to die, and shipped off to death row.

After getting released, Anthony said, "I didn't go to [my kids] graduation. [Other] kids they be talking about `Where your father?.' They be teasing them, telling them, `Your father locked up, your father locked up.' They be crying and stuff. Then the stuff get back to me. That was like bothering me. I knew that I was innocent all this time. I was just screaming at the top of my lungs, telling everybody from day one that I was innocent."

By the fall of 1998, Anthony's claims of innocence in court continued to fall upon deaf ears. All appeals to the Illinois State Supreme Court had been rejected--in one instance, because William Taylor's false testimony was considered a more convincing eyewitness account. The only thing standing between Anthony and his last meal was the argument by his lawyers that Anthony was mildly retarded and incapable of grasping his impending execution. In the wake of protest, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune and a letter by Cardinal George to the Illinois Governor warning against "tarnishing the good name of Illinois," the courts granted a stay of execution--only 50 hours before Anthony would have been given a lethal injection.

That stay provided the opening for a small team of college journalism students, their professor, David Protess, and a private investigator to launch a new investigation. In 1996, another group of Protess's students had helped win freedom for the Ford Heights Four--who had been railroaded by a racist sheriffs department and prosecutors. Protess and his students hoped to do the same for Anthony Porter. They poured over court documents, police reports, visited Anthony on death row, went to the murder scene, canvassed door-to-door and, together with the private investigator, interviewed witnesses. On February 3, as prosecutors worked to prove Anthony "fit for execution," the bombshell that the students hoped for arrived. In a videotaped confession, broadcast all over the news, Alstory Simon admitted that in the midst of a heated argument over drugs, he shot and killed both Marilyn Green and Terry Hilliard.

Calls for a Moratorium on Executions

"It's like a heavy load just lift up, like something came up out my whole body. Like release. Cause I been for so long saying that I was innocent and nobody weren't listening to what I was saying."

Anthony Porter

"With Anthony being let out, this is the first time [since] I've been here, there is hope on the row."

Bobby Sims, death row inmate at Pontiac,
in a letter to anti-death penalty activists.

Anthony's release was a moment of joy, especially for those who could not sit on the sidelines and watch an injustice go down. "This was like manna from heaven," said one of the students. Another student echoed those sentiments, "You asked how could we dedicate so much time. How could we not dedicate so much time to saving an innocent man who's been, unfortunately, just a victim of this whole justice system." "We all feel kind of a collective outrage," said Professor David Protess, "that Anthony Porter was allowed to sit on death row for 16 years in the first place and came within hours of being executed. That's a sobering thought." "It's just unforgivable," remarked Paul Ciolino, the private investigator who interviewed Alstory Simon. "Had they [the police] looked elsewhere, at a minimum amount of time and effort, they would have known who committed this murder. It's a no brainer."

In the days that followed Anthony's release, stories on the injustice of the death penalty appeared in the press and evening news. There was the family members of the Death Row Ten--ten Black men convicted due to confessions extracted through police torture. There was the moving sight of Anthony Porter being reunited with fellow death row survivor Rolando Cruz, who challenged Illinois governor Ryan to issue a stay on all executions. Numerous op-ed pieces supporting a moratorium on the death penalty appeared in the press, including editorials from both of Chicago's two main daily papers, The Tribune and Sun-Times.

The math was hard to argue with. In the two decades since a 1997 Supreme Court decision put the U.S. hangman back in business, for every one person executed in Illinois, an innocent one has been released from death row. 11 dead. 10 freed. Whether you live or die, as one anti-death penalty activist remarked, is little more than a coin flip.

The fallout from Anthony's release has put even the most ardent death penalty defenders on the defensive. At first, state and local public officials were unrepentant--"The system works" they chanted. Chicago's Mayor Daley, former head of the state's attorney's office that prosecuted Anthony, refused to apologize and denied all responsibility: "It was a thorough case, it was reviewed," he asserted. "No one railroads anyone." Illinois Governor Ryan even stooped so low as to blame David Protess and his students: "Sure it took 17 years," said Ryan's spokesperson, "but it also took 17 years for that journalism professor to sic his kids on that case." But after a few days, they had to change their tune. Now, the governor is forced to admit that there are "problems." The Illinois Attorney General and the local State's Attorney promise stricter "review" of capital cases and Chicago's mayor has even come out in support of a moratorium for those already on death row.


A few days after his release, Anthony Porter and his family spoke at a program called by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. When Anthony walked in, his face spoke of the price his many years on death row has cost him.

"Everybody know who I am, right?" he asked. The answer came with a standing ovation. Most among the overflow crowd of nearly 200 that attended could only imagine what it would be like to walk in his shoes. Some could do more than imagine: A woman in a wheelchair, whose son languishes in prison, wrongfully convicted as well. A man whose time in the joint gave him an appreciation of Anthony's strength in surviving. A young woman with three brothers doing time.

"The battle is not over yet," said Anthony's cousin Tammy to the crowd, "because we still must seek justice for Aaron Patterson, Ronald Kitchen, Willie Enoch, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Nathson Fields, just to name a few. They are innocent. We are the voices down here, and they are the unheard voices in there. There are so many young brothers that are locked up and they are innocent and they are crucified because of their name or reputation. We must not stop now."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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