A private investigator involved in a controversial investigation of a wrongful conviction, who was later alleged to have employed improper investigative techniques in a book and a documentary, sued several defendants for defamation and false light. The appellate panel reversed the trial court in part, finding that the investigator’s claims were not time-barred.

In 1982, Jerry HIllard and Marilyn Green were murdered in Washington Park in Chicago. Anthony Porter was convicted for the murders and was sentenced to the death penalty. Professor David Protess and other members of Northwestern University’s Innocence Project investigated the case and identified another suspect, Alstory Simon. At some point, members of the Innocence Project came to believe that Simon and not Porter had really committed the murders.

Paul Ciolino was employed as a private investigator and did work for the Innocence Project. Ciolino and another investigator traveled to Milwaukee to meet with Simon. Simon claims that Ciolino pretended to be a police officer from Illinois, and that Ciolino was armed with a handgun at the time of their meeting. Ciolino told Simon that the Innocence Project had sworn statements from Simon’s ex-wife, Inez Jackson, and from an eyewitness to the murders. Ciolino also showed Simon a video that the Innocence Project had made with a paid actor pretending to be the eyewitness. Simon also alleged that Ciolino persuaded him to confess to the murders by promising him that he would receive a sentence of only a few years in prison, and that he would receive money from book and movie deals because of the intense publicity of the case.

The Innocence Project eventually succeeded in freeing Porter from prison, using Simon’s videotaped confession as well as statements from Simon’s ex-wife and her nephew, Walter Jackson. The Cook County State’s Attorney then indicted Simon for the murders. Simon eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to 37 years in prison. Still, many people felt that Simon was not actually responsible for the murders and began investigations of their own to determine whether he was innocent of the crimes.

Inez Jackson and Walter Jackson eventually recanted their statements. The two explained they had implicated Simon in their statements based on promises from Protess. They alleged that Protess and his team had given them food, cash, alcohol, and other things of value to induce them to make statements. Northwestern University later conducted an internal investigation into the journalistic and investigative practices of the Innocence Project under Protess, and he was separated from the University as a result. The Cook County State’s Attorney then investigated Simon’s case and determined that, due to the misconduct on the parts of Protess and Ciolino, the conviction was so tainted that it could not stand. Simon was eventually released from prison after serving 15 years.

After Simon was released, a book and a documentary were produced about the case. Simon also filed a federal civil rights suit against Protess, Northwestern, Ciolino, and others. Simon eventually settled with Northwestern and Protess, and voluntarily dismissed Ciolino as a defendant. Ciolino then filed suit in Illinois state court against several parties, alleging defamation and false light for the statements made about him and his portrayal in the book and documentary. The defendants moved to dismiss all of the claims, and the trial court granted the motions, finding the claims to be time-barred. Ciolino then appealed.

The Illinois Appellate Court began by noting that the first material regarding Ciolino’s involvement in the Simon case was one of the defendant’s completion of a draft document, that would later be substantially incorporated into the book about the case. This document was completed in 2011. The documentary on the case premiered in 2014, and the book was published in June 2015. Blog posts written by other defendants were published between June 2015 and April 2016. Ciolino first asserted his claims as a counterclaim to Simon’s federal suit in April 2016. The panel noted that, under the Illinois Savings Statute, the question was whether Ciolino’s claims were timely as of the date of the filing of his federal counterclaim.

The panel determined that there were several factual questions concerning publication dates of the allegedly defamatory statements that went unanswered in the trial court. The panel found that, when considered in conjunction with the requirement that all inferences be drawn in Ciolino’s favor at this stage in the suit, the questions were not properly answered by the defendants and the defendants were not entitled to dismissal. The panel did, however, conclude that the claims against Anita Alvarez were properly dismissed, as they stemmed from a press conference she gave more than a year before Ciolino filed his counterclaim. The panel concluded that Ciolino’s claims against Alvarez were therefore time-barred. Accordingly, the panel affirmed in part and reversed in part the decision of the trial court, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

You can read the Appellate Court’s decision here.

Lubin Austermuehle’s DuPage County defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Schaumburg have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state defamation and First Amendment laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Elmhurst and Deerfield near Northbrook and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest region. You can contact us online here or call us on our toll-free number at 833-306-4933 or locally at 630-333-0333.