Anthony Porter, an Illinois death-row exoneree whose case sparked a chain of events that ultimately led the state to abolish the death penalty, has died. He was 66 years old.

In 1983, Porter was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers in a southside Chicago park. No physical evidence linked him to the murders, but after more than 17 hours of coercive interrogation, another man, William Taylor, told police that he had seen Porter commit the murders.

Porter came within 50 hours of execution in September 1998, when the Illinois Supreme Court, concerned that Porter was mentally incompetent because of his low IQ, issued a stay and ordered a hearing on his mental capacity. While that hearing was pending, journalism students at Northwestern University began investigating his case and found that Taylor, who was in the park’s swimming pool at the time of the murders, could not have seen the killings. Taylor recanted his testimony and signed an affidavit saying that Chicago police had threatened, harassed, and intimidated him into naming Porter.

The students’ investigation led them to another man who gave a videotaped confession to the murders. Porter was exonerated in 1999.

After gaining his freedom, Porter’s 17 years of wrongful incarceration, intellectual impairments, and lack of meaningful compensation left him in continuing financial difficulty. He told the Chicago Tribune in February 1999, “Everybody keeps talking about a job. A job is all right but they took 17 years out of my life. What kind of job am I going to do?” The $145,875 in restitution from Illinois in 2000 was the sole compensation he received.

Porter’s death was announced July 7, 2021 by Jim Montgomery, who represented Porter in an unsuccessful civil suit against the city of Chicago arising out of Porter’s wrongful conviction. Montgomery told WBBM Newsradio that Porter had died earlier in the week.

In the wake of Porter’s exoneration, Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in January 2000 and established a special governor’s commission to study the state’s death penalty system. In announcing the moratorium, Ryan said, “I cannot support a system which … has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life.”

On January 10, 2003, three days before his term of office ended, Ryan issued pardons to four death-row prisoners whom he concluded were innocent. The following day, he issued the largest blanket grant of clemency to death-row prisoners in U.S. history, commuting the sentences of the state’s 167 death row prisoners to life terms. Ryan’s 171 grants of clemency account for nearly 60% of the 294 humanitarian grants of clemency to U.S. death-row prisoners since 1976.

Porter’s post-conviction lawyer, Lawrence Marshall, who later became co-founder and legal director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, called Porter’s case “perhaps the most significant” of the Illinois cases that led to Governor Ryan’s clemencies. Marshall, who is now a professor at Stanford Law School, told the Chicago Tribune that “[t]he spectacle of [Porter] having come so close to execution, literally within two days, literally having been fit for a suit for the coffin, and only later through Northwestern students for the truth to emerge about his absolute innocence was something that was hard for any fair-minded person to ignore. It generated a sense of outrage. I remember it being said that several people said, ‘What does it mean that we need college students to be able to determine that we have an innocent man we’re about to kill?’ So it was very moving.”

Ryan’s action precipitated the end of the death penalty in Illinois. On March 9, 2011, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill repealing the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Quinn also commuted the death sentences of the 15 people then on the state’s death row to life without parole.

In a Discussions With DPIC podcast in October 2020, Governor Ryan told DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham that Porter’s exoneration and release opened his eyes to problems with capital punishment as administered in Illinois. “I was just a few months into my term when I was sitting in the Mansion in Springfield, Illinois, watching the news out of Chicago,” Ryan said. “My wife and I were there. The news says that here’s a … guy named Anthony Porter, who just been released after 16 years on death row. …

“I said to my wife, how does that happen in America? How do you … put somebody in jail for 16 years of their life and each morning, when they wake up, they have to wonder, ‘Today, am I going to get executed or not?’ … So that’s what really triggered my total thought on it. And that’s when I started to look into things.”

Many exonerees are targets of efforts by police and prosecutors to disparage their innocence, and Porter faced a virulent version of that phenomenon. In 2014, Alstory Simon recanted his confession, claiming that Paul Ciolino, an investigator working with the students, and their professor David Protess had coerced him into admitting having committed the killings. Without going so far as to say Porter was guilty, then-State Attorney Anita Alvarez asked the Illinois courts to release Simon, citing alleged uncertainty over who had committed the murders.

Ciolino has filed a defamation suit against Simon alleging, in the words of his attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, “that a group of strongly pro-police lawyers, their investigator, and a Chicago Police officer publicly peddled the lie that Ciolino framed Alstory Simon by coercing a videotaped confession from him.”

Fifteen people have been exonerated from death-row in Cook County since 1973, more than twice as many as in any other county in the United States. A DPIC analysis of the exoneration data found that all of those cases involved either official misconduct or perjury/false accusation and 13 of the 15 involved both.


Mariah Rush, Anthony Porter, ex-death row inmate whose case was Exhibit A’ in prompt­ing Illinois to halt exe­cu­tions, dies at 66, Chicago Tribune, July 8, 2021; Associated Press, Anthony Porter, whose case helped end death penal­ty in Illinois, dies, Chicago Sun Times, July 8, 2021; Khaleda Rhaman, Anthony Porter, whose exon­er­a­tion fueled Illinois’ abo­li­tion of death penal­ty, dies at 66, Newsweek, July 8, 2021; Steve Miller, Former Death Row inmate Anthony Porter has died, age 66, WBBM Newsradio, Chicago, July 72021.

Read more about Anthony Porter’s case at DPIC’s cur­ricu­lum web­site, Capital Punishment in Context.