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Anthony Porter, ex-death row inmate whose case was ‘Exhibit A’ in prompting Illinois to halt executions, dies at 66

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 7/9/2021 Mariah Rush, Chicago Tribune
Anthony Porter et al. posing for a picture: In his mother's South Side home, Anthony Porter after being released from prison in February 1999. © Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune In his mother's South Side home, Anthony Porter after being released from prison in February 1999.

Anthony Porter, a Chicago resident whose death row case was a major factor in abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, has died at 66.

Porter died Monday of “anoxic brain injury due to probable opioid toxicity,” the Cook County medical examiner’s office said. The death has been ruled an accident.

Porter was sentenced to death in 1983 after the Aug. 15, 1982, double murder in Washington Park of two teenagers.

He spent 17 years on death row until he was freed in 1999 after another man, Alstory Simon, confessed on tape to the murders. Porter came within 48 hours of being executed before his lawyers argued he was not mentally fit to be executed, and months later the Medill Innocence Project, an association whose tactics have been called unethical in scandals following Porter’s case, stepped in to help on his case.

Anthony Porter talking on a cell phone: Death row inmate Anthony Porter is interviewed by the media in the library of the Cook County Department of Corrections Division IX in Chicago before his release in February 1999. Porter was reacting to the fact that a Milwaukee laborer, Alstory Simon, made a videotaped statement implicating himself in the 1982 murders of two teenagers. © Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune Death row inmate Anthony Porter is interviewed by the media in the library of the Cook County Department of Corrections Division IX in Chicago before his release in February 1999. Porter was reacting to the fact that a Milwaukee laborer, Alstory Simon, made a videotaped statement implicating himself in the 1982 murders of two teenagers.

His release from death row sparked further debate about the use of the death penalty in Illinois, and then-Gov. George Ryan stopped executions in the state. Before his term ended, he commuted all death sentences to life in prison.

Ryan’s career prior to 2000 was spent in support of the death penalty.

“I cannot support a system which ... has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life,” Ryan said in January 2000 when he declared a moratorium on executions. Illinois became the first state to do so, and it abolished the death penalty in 2011.

Lawrence Marshall, the co-founder and former legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, advocated for Porter and overturning the death penalty in Illinois during Porter’s time on death row and after his release.

“His case was perhaps the most significant of them all in generating the clemencies that the governor issued,” said Marshall, now a professor at Stanford Law. “The spectacle of him having come so close to execution, literally within two days, literally having been fit for a suit for the coffin, and only later through Northwestern students for the truth to emerge about his absolute innocence was something that was hard for any fair-minded person to ignore. It generated a sense of outrage. I remember it being said that several people said, ‘What does it mean that we need college students to be able to determine that we have an innocent man we’re about to kill?’ So it was very moving.”

a man looking at the camera: Anthony Porter, right, freed after being on death row since 1983 for murders he did not commit, visits a Northwestern University class of professor David Protess, left, on Jan. 31, 2000. Protess and his students were instrumental in Porter's exoneration. © Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune Anthony Porter, right, freed after being on death row since 1983 for murders he did not commit, visits a Northwestern University class of professor David Protess, left, on Jan. 31, 2000. Protess and his students were instrumental in Porter's exoneration.

Marshall said there was momentum building in the movement to overturn the death penalty with other cases, but Porter’s case was the “nail in the coffin.”

“The player at that time was George Ryan,” he said. “He was a jury of one, and convincing him that the system was irretrievably flawed was the goal of those seeking to secure clemency. And Anthony Porter was ‘Exhibit A.’”

Simon, after serving 15 years in prison, recanted his confession and said he was pressured to do so at the urging of a private investigator working with David Protess, who was leading the Innocence Project.

He was released after several witnesses changed their stories as well. Then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in 2014 her office found the case against Simon so unsubstantial that she was dropping the charges.

A 2014 documentary, “A Murder in the Park,” was based on Porter’s conviction, Simon’s confession and speculation on whether Porter was truly innocent. The double murder case is still unsolved.

After being freed in 1999, Porter said he found trouble getting a job or building a life.

“Everybody keeps talking about a job,” Porter said in a February 1999 Chicago Tribune story. “A job is all right but they took 17 years out of my life. What kind of job am I going to do?” He publicly pleaded for help to move his family away from gangs and crime after his release.

Porter received $145,875 in restitution from the state in 2000 and later unsuccessfully filed a civil suit against the city of Chicago, claiming it framed him and ignored evidence of his innocence.

Porter had some domestic disturbances after his release and was arrested in 2011 for stealing deodorant from a South Side Walgreens. He was sentenced to one year in prison in 2012.

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