The first time I wrote about Alstory Simon, then a Milwaukee north sider, was in 1999, right after he confessed to a double murder in Chicago.
Simon’s shocking admission — not to police but to an investigator working for Northwestern University’s Innocence Project — led to the release and pardon of a man on death row for the crime, and ultimately to the death penalty being abolished in Illinois.
Two years later, I wrote about Simon again. This time he had reached out to me from prison to say the confession and subsequent guilty plea were involuntary. He insisted he was innocent, as do most inmates who send letters to reporters from prison.
My column was not sympathetic. His confession was right there on videotape for everyone to see, including the detail that he had “busted off about six rounds.”
Last week, Simon walked out of prison a free man after Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced that her office, after a yearlong investigation, was vacating the charges against him and ending his 37-year sentence.
The investigation by the Innocence Project, she said, “involved a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards, they were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon’s constitutionally protected rights.”
The truth took 15 years to come out. That’s 15 years that Simon, now 64, spent behind bars.
The Innocence Project has long made a staple argument that many confessions to the police were coerced, and not truly voluntary.
And they were right! How do we know? Because they used the same coersion and duplicity to send an innocent man to jail for many years. Not because they cared for justice, but because they loathed the very concept of capital punishment.
I am sympathetic to the argument that the implementation of the death penalty in prosecutions, particularly in Illinois, is problematical. But I’m also in favor of the death penalty as the ultimate societal sanction. But I’m not so committed to it as to be willing to ruin the life of an innocent to spare a (likely) guilty.
Unfortunately, as with so many progressive projects, the achievement of the political goal is far more important than the process by which it is achieved.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.