THAT WRONG MAN IS ON DEATH ROW
February 2, 1999
Margaret Simon always knew that, one day, the knock would come on her door and the haunting past would rush in.
Last week it came. Two female journalism students from Northwestern who had tracked her through a network of her relatives and other tips appeared at her home in Milwaukee with cryptic news: An incarcerated relative has a message for you, and we'd like an appointment to talk it over.
Simon agreed to go to a restaurant with the young women several days later. With them was their professor, David Protess, and Chicago private investigator Paul Ciolino. The message, they told her, was from her nephew, Walter Jackson, now incarcerated for murder at Illinois' Danville Correctional Center, and it urged her to tell the real story about what happened on Aug. 15, 1982.
Relief flooded over her, she told me in an interview later that day. "I'd thought about it all the time," she said. Telling the story "lifted a big burden from my heart."
She said she was on the scene that night, sitting next to her good friend Marilyn Green when Green and her fiance, Jerry Hillard, were shot and killed in Washington Park on the South Side.
Anthony Porter is now on Illinois' Death Row for the killings. He was two days away from receiving a lethal injection in September when doubts about his mental fitness raised by the Capital Litigation Division--a state-funded organization that coordinates legal efforts for the condemned--prompted the Illinois Supreme Court to issue a temporary stay. A hearing on that issue began Monday in Cook County Circuit Court.
But Margaret Simon said Porter was not the killer. The gunman, she said, was her now-estranged husband, Alstory Simon, who was furious at Hillard for skimming proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs.
"I started screaming," after the first shots were fired, she said. "(Alstory) grabbed me by the arm, and we ran out of the park."
They ended up back at her apartment, where her nephew Walter Jackson was living. In an independent affidavit signed in mid-January, Jackson recounted this middle-of-the-night arrival: "Alstory took me aside and told me he had `taken care of' Jerry and Marilyn."
Margaret Simon's affidavit, signed and videotaped Friday, continues: "The next day, Alstory and I left the South Side of Chicago, eventually ending up in Milwaukee. We never returned."
Walter Jackson told a similar tale. And so did Offie Lee Green, the mother of victim Marilyn Green. She repeated to me last week what for many years she'd told anyone who would listen--that on the night her daughter was murdered, she left home in the company of Alstory Simon and his wife
Further, the mother said, the Simons inexplicably disappeared the next day. By that time, police were pinning the crime on Anthony Porter, a local hoodlum whom she believes was not involved and who has steadfastly maintained his innocence for more than 16 years.
The case against Porter was built on the testimony of William Taylor, who told authorities he was in the park that night and had seen Porter fire the fatal shots.
But as I reported last week, Taylor recanted his testimony in a Dec. 14 affidavit. He said he did not see Porter with a gun and did not see who shot the victims, but that police had coerced his testimony.
A second witness who placed Porter at the scene with a gun has since died. Efforts to reach Alstory Simon for comment Monday were unsuccessful, but he recently denied any knowledge of the Green-Hillard murders in a conversation with the Northwestern investigative team.
Margaret Simon said she has been separated for six years from Alstory Simon--who served time in prison for armed robbery 20 years ago--but hasn't come forward because she still fears him. She is 48 years old, has 13 grandchildren and is in failing health, she said.
Now what? The case against Anthony Porter is in tatters, and the issue of his possible innocence has overtaken the issue of his possible mental retardation.
A spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office said prosecutors are eager to review the affidavits of Simon, Jackson and Taylor, which they will likely obtain Tuesday. If they don't reopen the case, it's a safe bet someone else will .