A Murder in the Park is a documentary that examines the twists and turns that life takes. It also looks at our criminal justice system and the way it works. With his execution just 48 hours away, Anthony Porter’s life was saved by a Northwestern University journalism class. Their re-investigation of the crime for which he was convicted—a double homicide in a Chicago park—led to the discovery of the real killer, Alstory Simon, whose confession exonerated Porter. If it all sounds too good to be true, it’s because, as compellingly argued here, Porter actually is guilty, Simon is an innocent man and both are just pawns in a much larger plan. The Gr1nd got with co-director Shawn Rech to discuss the film. Check out the exclusive interview here-
How did you get involved with A Murder in the Park?
My co-director and I produced hundreds of episodes of regional television programs titled, “Crime Stoppers Case Files.” We produced them for CBS in Miami and LA, NBC/Gannett in Cleveland, and FOX in Chicago. Attorney Andy Hale, one of the sponsors of the Chicago program, asked me what was next for our careers, and we said we wanted to create a documentary – hopefully on a wrongful conviction. I believe the system is flawed and innocent people are sitting in prison, and some have been executed. He said, “I have one that will make your head spin. It’s a DOUBLE wrongful conviction.” He explained the Porter/Simon case, and although we had initial reservations (Simon’s “confession”), we dug deeper. It became clear pretty quickly that a horrible injustice had occurred, and no one in print or television was properly telling the story. We then made a commitment to make the film, and Andy Hale joined me as Executive Producer.
How long did it take to do the research, shoot and put the film together?
Much of the research was already done by two retired federal agents, Jim Delorto and john Mazzola, and a retired Pulitzer-winning Tribune columnist named Bill Crawford. They all saw through the 1999 “Porter was innocent” story and performed exhaustive, independent investigations. We had access to their files, as well as records from the Grand jury that dissected this case in 1999, and of course, many news stories quoting Protess, investigator Ciolino, and the students (None of them would participate in the film).
We poured through this material, confirmed it with interviews and supporting documentation, then created a rough cut of this film. The rough cut was nearly an hour longer than the current run time (91 minutes), and would have required the average viewer to take notes. We needed to simplify, so the big challenge was removing all non-essential pieces of the story. We also had to reduce the evidence we included, because though it was damning and made our point, some of it was redundant. We ended up with what i believe is a pretty compelling argument, thoroughly backed up, told in a way that keeps the viewer engaged.
The film took two and a half years from start to finish.
Did you know the ending when you started making the film or did it come out in the process?
No. We were told by everyone, including Simon’s attorneys, that he was out of options. We created the movie as a “call to action” film, hoping to create a groundswell of support for Simon after its release. What actually happened was amazing. When we started contacting players in this case, and those who reported it (who really were players themselves), it reignited interest in the story. We showed Eric Zorn, a Protess friend and supporter, Alstory Simon’s explanation of why he confessed. We sat in his kitchen and played the video for him. The next day in the Chicago Tribune, he called for the case to be re-opened. This emboldened Simon’s attorneys, who decided to try a new angle, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. This ended up being a pivotal moment, and we feel we were a part of that, despite the movie still being in production at the time.
What did the people in the Northwestern Journalism class think of the film and the whole episode?
I tried to contact all of the students. They are all very successful in law, activism and journalism. Most didn’t reply, but those who did declined. Ciolino declined via email. Protess agreed to meet with me. We had lunch and he told me I would make him look bad no matter what, so he was out. It sucks, because had he participated, even if he told us we were crazy, threw off his mic and stormed off, it would have made for a better movie. Conflict on screen is a good thing. We would have let him defend himself – but he just didn’t believe us. He went on to nuke me in his Huffington Post blog.
Where is Anthony Porter now?
As far as I know, he still lives in Chicago and receives help and guidance from a community activist.
What about Alstory Simon?
Simon lives in Ohio and is now working to free others he believes are wrongfully convicted. He has attorneys and investigators digging into a 45 year old case as I write this.
What were they like as people besides being the subjects of the film?
Porter was friendly enough, but generally mistrustful. He and a friend read our film’s appearance release a couple times through before signing it. He eventually got comfortable during the interview.
Simon is a very like-able guy. I’ve spent a lot of time with him promoting this film and filming it’s follow-up. He’s always smiling, spends as much time with his family as possible, and really enjoys cooking. As I said, he’s troubled by the cases of some of the men he left behind in prison, and feels they have been treated unfairly. I think after his civil suit is decided, he’ll become a vocal advocate for them.
What did making this film teach you?
It taught me that reporting, in general, has gone downhill – maybe because traditional media’s financial struggles are affecting it’s product. I think the retired reporter Bill Crawford said it best. He said in the 1980’s the Tribune would have had a team of reporters working for months getting the real story behind Porter’s release and Northwestern’s investigation. As it turns out, not a single journalist in 1999 reported that six witnesses either saw Porter in the park or saw him pull the trigger. Why? We believe none of them even took the time to pull the original police report. Even the students and Protess didn’t know about the six witnesses when asked by a grand jury. A man was sent to prison for 16 years and this was the depth of their “investigation?” And reporters just appeared to reprint the “facts” they were handed by the professor.
What can someone get from watching your film?
They’ll get an inside look at how an injustice unfolded. Hopefully they’ll leave the theater satisfied with the outcome.
Without giving too much away what is the much larger plan the film alludes to in this case?
Some of our interview subjects believe the plan was to end the death penalty by exposing how flawed the system really is, inasmuch as Porter was 48 hours from being executed and would have been were it not for this Northwestern team. It was a spectacular story and drew so much attention and shock that action was taken. This case initiated the end of Illinois’ death penalty.
The crazy part? I’m glad the death penalty was eliminated. Hale, Kimber (the co-director) and I are all strongly against the death penalty. It just shouldn’t have been at the expense of Alstory Simon sitting in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
What other work have you done?
The Crime Stoppers programs I mentioned. We’re working on several new projects, including a follow-up to this film called “Al’s Story,” “Kickstand,” a movie about cycling in big cities, “The Birthmother,” the story of my search for my natural mother, as well as a couple scripted projects.
How involved are you in the camera, filmmaking and editing process? Explain.
Brandon Kimber, the co-director, makes all the filming decisions (shot composition, setting), I conducted most of the interviews, he edits together the big glob of footage that we start with, and he and I discuss, debate, argue and finally arm-wrestle over what stays in. I handle the business side as well.
Check out the trailer for the film here-