21 June 2003
The West Australian, English
(c) 2003, West Australian Newspapers Limited


Private investigator Paul Ciolino is on a mission to save innocent inmates of Death Row. He explained to Trevor Robb his passion to get rid of the death penaty, which helped convince the Governor of Illinois to put a moratorium on its use but led to to his politicial demise.

BIG Paul Ciolino looks as hard as a truckful of week-old brickie’s mortar. “I’m kind of a grassroots guy. I’m down there in the gutter with the people. That’s where I came from,” he says.

angel-of-death-row-01The gutters Ciolino refers to are those on the notoriously tough south side of Chicago – the sort of seedy joints most only dare to venture into from the comfort of leather recliner rockers, watching a rerun of The Untouchables.

He looks and sounds like everything Australians epitomise as the brash American – the flash suit, glitzy gold jewellery, expensive watch.

But the fact that the accoutrements sit slightly askew on his imposing frame as he stands in the foyer of Perth’s Hyatt Hotel suggests there’s more to all this than meets the eye.

This is not your average Joe. Ciolino is an old-fashioned, cigar-chomping, hard-nosed gumshoe – with all the obvious cliches clearly intact. A private investigator (in Perth for a conference) with a social conscience who played a key part in the biggest civil rights furore in recent American history.

Ciolino has worked tirelessly, mostly at his own expense, to rub out America’s anachronistic death penalty in the 38 states where it’s still in force.

His damning evidence of wrongful murder convictions finally convinced Illinois Governor George Ryan to grant clemency to all 167 inmates on the state’s death rows at the start of this year and in so doing, commit political suicide.

angel-of-death-row-02Governor Ryan’s decision to put a moratorium on the death penalty sparked a frenzy in the United States, not just among the legal and political fraternities who see the penalty as a way of proving they are tough on crime, but also among civil rights groups hoping it represented the first chink in a seemingly impenetrable armour.

“I started with this issue concerned about innocence,” he said in an address to Northwestern University’s College of Law last January.

“But once I studied, once I pondered what had become of our justice system, I came to care above all about fairness.

“Fairness is fundamental to the American system of justice and our way of life. The facts I have seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases raised questions, not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole.”

Just what did Ciolino and others, including a journalism professor and his students, do that had such a profound impact on the governor that he was prepared to renounce his own belief in the death penalty and sacrifice a long, distinguished career?

They uncovered the truth.

In September 1998, death row inmate Anthony Porter had run out of avenues of appeal, his funeral arrangements had been made and the 27-year-old was just 48 hours away from a lethal injection in Illinois’ Menard Prison.

At the last moment, Porter was granted a reprieve by the Supreme Court, not because of concerns that he may be innocent but after tests revealed he had an IQ of just 51. He was bordering on retarded and it was not clear if he even understood what was about to happen to him or why.

Ciolino, in conjunction with Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and a team of his students, seized the chance to investigate the case.

Porter had been convicted of the shooting deaths of Marilyn Green, 19, and Jerry Hillard, 18, in a park on the south side of Chicago in the early hours of August 15, 1982. But subsequent case study notes on the investigations by the Northwestern team highlight police incompetence and glaring deficiencies in the legal process which led to Porter’s conviction.

They report that shortly after the murders, police had interviewed William Taylor who had been nearby in the park. Taylor at first said he did not see who committed the crime.

Later, the team noted, Taylor said he had seen Porter just after the shots were fired and after 17 hours of interrogation, his story changed even further.

Taylor now told police he had seen Porter, a member of a Chicago street gang, actually shoot the pair, his evidence sealing Porter’s fate … almost forever.

But after interviewing members of the victims’ families, the team discovered that Hillard had been involved in a serious dispute with another man, Alstory Simon, over drug money.

Despite any physical evidence to connect him to the crimes, Porter was charged with the double murder, armed robbery, unlawful restraint and the unlawful use of weapons.

The subsequent trial was, by the Northwestern team’s account, a farce, with Porter’s lawyer at one point even falling asleep and later admitting he stopped investigating when the family’s money ran out.

In December 1998, and after rigorous investigations, Taylor recanted his testimony to Ciolino, saying police had pressured him to name Porter. A month later, Simon’s now estranged wife Inez told Ciolino she had been present when the shooting took place.

Her then husband had killed the two teenagers and she had never even heard of Porter, she said.

Four days later, Simon himself admitted to Ciolino on a videotaped confession that he had shot Hillard in self-defence following an argument over drug money. He had also accidentally shot Green as well.

In September 1999, Simon pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree murder and was sentenced to 37 years in prison. Porter had spent 15 years on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit.

“George Ryan, you have to understand, was a conservative Republican. He was not a liberal Democrat. He voted for the death penalty before, he was in agreement with the death penalty as a politician,” Ciolino says.

“Ryan was a new governor but he got scared because he thought: “I came within 48-hours of signing this guy’s (Porter’s) death warrant and killing him’.

“Ryan has a conscience. That was the problem. Unlike 90 per cent of politicians over there he was really concerned about killing somebody who may have been innocent.

“So he got nervous and he said: “You know what, if this can happen with this guy I’m sure it could have happened with others so I’m going to have a moratorium. We’re not eliminating the death penalty but I’m not killing anybody till I’m satisfied these mistakes are no longer occurring.”

During the ensuing stay of executions, Governor Ryan set up a committee of leading prosecutors to review the system in an effort to iron out the flaws.

“They came in with 85 recommendations to change the system … all of them good recommendations. Well they brought it to the legislature and the legislature did nothing the first time,” Ciolino says.

“They didn’t institute one change, never mind 85. So Ryan said: “I don’t know why you didn’t do it this time but I’m going to give you an opportunity to do it again’.

“He didn’t say you have to do all 85, but I want a lot of them instituted so we can avoid this problem.

“The second time they also refused to do it. At which point Ryan just threw his hands up and said: “Listen, the moratorium stays now because I don’t trust you. It’s been proven that I can’t trust you and you can’t tell me why I should kill people. You can’t guarantee me that I’m not going to kill someone who’s innocent. I have to make the decision and because I’m making the decision I’m going to return to the moratorium’.

“That’s why Ryan did it. Because they refused to change. When he did that he committed political suicide. He knew being anti-death penalty was political suicide. “When he went against all the prosecutors who were also politicians they ganged up on him and that was it. He was done. His career was over with after that.”

Indeed it was. Ryan, who made the decision as one of his last acts in office, is now facing possible charges which Ciolino believes are politically motivated to send a warning to anyone else who wants to change the system.

“I think George Ryan’s future is very bleak, unfortunately. They’re talking about indicting him for misconduct that occurred when he was a secretary of state running the drivers’ licence bureau in Illinois,” Ciolino says.

“Frankly, it’s all connected to his stand on the death penalty. The prosecutors are mad and they’ve all gotten together and they’ve decided they’re going to teach him a lesson and they’re going to show these other politicians that are thinking about this that if you cross us, we’ll indict you and we’ll put you in jail and we’ll ruin your life.

“And that’s what they’re going to try and do to George Ryan. That’s going to happen.

“I will work for him for free until I die because I know what they’re doing to him. Ryan is, I think 72 now, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life defending himself against false charges and accusations and they’ll bankrupt him and ruin his family.”

The Porter case was just one of many in which Ciolino has proved the innocence of a condemned man. Governor Ryan attributed Ciolino and his colleagues with saving the lives and securing the freedom of 17 men who were wrongfully convicted, most having spent years in prison.

A series of investigative reports in the respected Chicago Tribune by journalists Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong also highlighted systemic failures in the Illinois capital punishment system.

In his address, Governor Ryan quoted figures from the reports, noting that almost half the 300 capital cases in the State at the time had been sent to a new trial or re-sentencing.

It got worse – 33 of the Death Row inmates had been represented at trial by lawyers who had later been disbarred or suspended from practising law.

More than two-thirds of the 160 inmates on death row in the State were African-Americans and of them, 35 had been condemned to die by all-white juries.

“I can recall looking at these cases and the information from the Mills/Armstrong series and asking my staff:”How does that happen? How in God’s name does that happen? I’m not a lawyer so someone explain it to me.’ But no one could. Not to this day,” Governor Ryan said.

DNA testing, which Ciolino has some support for, is playing a key role in proving the innocence of many of the condemned inmates. At one point, due in part to DNA evidence, more condemned men were being exonerated than executed, with 13 found innocent and 12 put to death.

Homicide rates in the 12 states of America which have abolished capital punishment and five which have not practised it recently have not increased.

Just how many innocent men have been put to death remains open to question, though Ciolino believes that the police get it wrong up to 10 per cent of the time.

“My guess would be anywhere between five and 10 per cent they got the wrong guy,” he says. “Murder is the ultimate crime … they’re devoting the resources, they’re devoting the money but they’re not getting it right almost 10 per cent of the time.

“This is because of poor training, because of politics … because of many, many things but mostly because the general public doesn’t care. They just want the crime solved then they can feel better.”

Race, wealth and geography are all key components in whether or not a man is sentenced to death.

“In Illinois, about a third of the Death Row inmates are white. Of course two-thirds of the population is white but two-thirds of the people on death row were black,” Ciolino says.

“It’s absolutely racist. It’s been proved to be racist over and over again. If you take the same set of circumstances and you put a white guy as a defendant and a black guy as a defendant or an American Indian or a Hispanic … that guy from the minority group will get the death penalty about 60 per cent more of the time than the white guy will.”

He argues that police also fit up suspects in what’s known as the, “It’s your turn” system of prosecution.

“They’ll take a gang member or somebody who’s been a real hard-core criminal for a number of years and they want to get him off the street for various reasons. “They’ll get a murder that occurred in his neighbourhood or territory and they’ll decide, because they can’t find anyone else to put it on, they’ll put it on him. They’ll get an informant or someone to say he did it. They might have an alibi or (have) been somewhere else. “Doesn’t matter. If they get one person to say he did it, he told me he did it … sometimes they do it with a family member who’s got pending criminal charges, they’re off and running with the prosecution.”

Compared to Australia, which has just eight State and territory police forces and a Federal jurisdiction, the American system is a judicial nightmare.

“You can’t even begin to imagine how screwed up it is. I’m in one state of 50 (Illinois) and in my state there’s
102 counties. We have the state police who cover the whole state but then we have 102 county sheriff’s
departments,” Ciolino says.

“Then within the counties there is anywhere from five to 35 cities or townships and they all have police departments.

“There’s more damned policemen than there are citizens in some of these counties. It’s crazy. Can you imagine the competition to fight crime, to make the next big murder case, to become famous, to get on the front page of the paper?”

Most Western countries have long since abolished the death penalty but as for whether or not it will change in the United States, Ciolino remains pessimistic.

“We have a new governor and we’re back to business as usual. Ryan’s gone, we got a Democrat and he’s in favour of the death penalty,” he says.

“Republicans, Democrats, independents. They’re all in favour of it. Look at Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton took time out of his campaign to go down to Arkansas and execute someone who was mentally retarded when he was running for president the first time.”

Ciolino believes most Americans would rail against capital punishment if they stopped and considered the consequences, but few rarely do.

“Most Americans are in a cloud. They go to work, they go home, they tend to their children … they’re not interested in the big issues. They’re not interested in this until it drops in their backyard.”

Ciolino makes good money from corporate investigations but seldom is he paid when he agrees to take on a case for someone on Death Row.

“I’ve gone broke working for people for free. If I have the time, I believe you’re innocent and I believe the state is getting ready to murder you for something you didn’t do and I can help you I’m going to do it,” he says.

“It’s not about money, it’s about personal freedom. I could have made millions of dollars more than what I’ve made in my life by doing more corporate work. It’s easier, cleaner, nicer.

“I feel an obligation to the poor bastard no one else has ever tried to help – regardless of what his life was before this and what he’s done or didn’t do.

“If he didn’t do this crime, we have no right to kill him.

“I was very pro-death penalty at one time. I ran the Child Homicide Unit for the State of Illinois for three years and let me tell you I’ve seen what it does to people. I know the victims’ mentality and how much damage is done to a family when somebody in it is murdered. I know exactly what goes on.

“But that doesn’t give the state the right to take someone else’s life and murder them and do that to their family because it looks good on paper and makes them feel better about themselves.”