Four walls of his life
Anthony Porter was exonerated of murder and set free.
Now, he's adrift in a world he is unprepared to face.
Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1999
By Monica Davey, Tribune Staff Writer
Anthony Porter looked around the cinder-block storage room at piles of clothes other inmates at Cook County Jail had left behind.
After spending 15 years and 5 months on Death Row for a double murder he didn't commit, the 44-year-old Porter chose an inconspicuous black shirt, black jeans, a black Atlanta Falcons cap and white sneakers. A jail guard offered him a Velcro wallet and a couple of CTA tokens.
As TV crews and a news helicopter prepared to record Porter's release, one of his attorneys volunteered a last bit of advice. "The second you turn that corner," she said, "your life is going to change."
The crowd cheered as he approached, a symbol of injustice in the mounting debate over the death penalty in Illinois.
Behind Porter was the world he knew best -- cramped cells, scheduled meals, prison jumpsuits and push-ups on a concrete floor. Before him was a world of freedom in which clashing forces of fame, greed, love and politics were about to exact their own price.
Climbing into a black sedan to be whisked down the Dan Ryan Expressway to his mother's apartment, Porter beamed. "I'm ready for everything," he said that day in February.
But during the last 5 months, his hopes have faded. He has already spent a night in jail on a domestic battery charge. Stuck in his old neighborhood, he has no job and little money. Boredom, depression and despair once again shadow his life.
Like 11 other men set free from death row in Illinois since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, he receives no state counseling or monitoring -- services mandated for those who are paroled or placed on probation.
For Porter, a handful of ordinary people have stepped in. Some have tried mightily to help him, others have sought to exploit the spectacle of Porter's odyssey for their own gain, and some have done both. Each has a different vision for his new life. Sign a movie deal. Stay out of trouble. Spread God's word. Get rich. Get romantic. Get political.
He lives in a prison of a different sort, confined by his lack of education, his dependence on others and his bleak past.
"I am disappointed," Porter says. "All I wanted was to get home. Then I got to go home. I feel like I'm going through the same thing as before. . . . Everybody keeps coming at me. I just want to get a life."
Porter is sitting in a car on South Indiana Avenue, eating a Checker's hamburger. He chews fast, holding his gaze on the food as though it might get away. Porter's arms are sculpted with muscle from his prison workouts, his hands thick. In the months since he was released, the curve of his belly has begun to press against his shirt.
His friends are gathered around, too, watching other cars cruise by this three-lane, one-way stretch in front of Porter's apartment. A car with tinted windows screeches up, slams to a stop at the curb. Porter's friends watch for a moment, wondering if this may mean trouble, but the car speeds off.
Porter is talking about death row, how he would see John Wayne Gacy, but steered clear of him. How the guards were racist, and tried to break the inmates, physically and mentally.
"I was behind a big vault. Like a big iron door. Like BOOM! Like that, you know what I'm saying, top to bottom . . .
"They just like stomped Anthony all the way down -- like boom, boom, boom, they don't want Anthony to get up," he says, gulping orange pop. "But look at me now."
Porter's days blur monotonously. He sleeps late. He dresses methodically, sporting a showy wardrobe of 2-tone tassled loafers, silky shirts and straw hats.
When he's not in front of the house, Porter sits on the couch of his mother's apartment, where he lives. A TV drones with Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, Oprah. Friends visit. Someone gets takeout. He naps.
Porter's best friend, Charles Pough, drops by nearly every day. Pough, known as Baby Charles, also serves as Porter's adviser, bodyguard and chauffeur. The 2 men often dress in sync -- one all in black with a white hat, the other all in white but for a black hat.
"I try to keep him out of trouble. . . . There are a lot of crazy people out there," says Pough, who favors wraparound shades. Pough has had his own run-ins; he's been convicted of burglary and possession of crack cocaine. Though Pough drives Porter everywhere, the secretary of state's office says he hasn't had a valid Illinois driver's license since the early 1980s.
Porter's only sister, Debra, a nurse who works the overnight shift, also says she wants to keep Porter out of trouble. One girl among 8 brothers, she helps Porter with his banking and his mail.
She has devised a method to grab her brother's attention. She stands before him, reaches her small hands around each of his shoulders, stares up into his eyes and speaks forcefully: "I need to talk to you. Alone. Now. Over here."
"It's the only thing that works," she says.
Like his moods, Porter's ambitions shift from day to day. He wants to help in a soup line. He wants to go to Disneyland. He wants to open a community center for troubled kids.
He asks strangers for help finding work. But he has turned down one construction job that would have paid $50,000 a year. "I'm trying to still get myself together," he says. "I'm still in the same place. I'm still going through things."
Porter has signed up for free tutoring, three afternoons a week, at Kennedy-King College, but the school will not talk about his progress. Porter says he regularly attends the public speaking, reading and math classes, calling them "marvelous." But other days he's less enthusiastic.
"I can't go to school," he says. "I can't deal with it."
Porter says his one definite goal is getting out of his neighborhood near Washington Park. He wants a home on a street with big lawns and friendly neighbors.
"If God let me get away from around here, my mind could open up," Porter says. "It's like you're trapped."
But he can't get there without money, which, in Porter's view, should come from the state, prosecutors and police.
"They owe me," he says. "Give me something so I can get my family out of here."
The state has yet to provide restitution through its Court of Claims -- Porter's eligible for up to about $140,000 -- and it's unclear when he might get any money and how much it will be. Porter, though, has received between $10,000 and $20,000 in contributions from individuals, according to his lawyer, Daniel Sanders.
Lately, the Porter family has bought some new items: a used Chevy van, a TV, a framed print of roses and butterflies with a message from Anthony to Clara Porter: "I love you, Mom."
No picture can cover up the dilapidated state of Mrs. Porter's apartment -- the golf ball-size hole in the door, the basketball-size hole in the ceiling, or the phone numbers scrawled in pencil on the living room wall.
A constant string of friends and relatives stops in, some crashing for the night on plastic-covered couches and tucking their folded clothes under sofa cushions for storage. The Green Line grinds past the living room window, past the tattered apartment buildings and vacant lots.
Porter has deep and painful roots in this community.
His school record was abysmal. He fell behind by two grades, then dropped out of DuSable High School before his junior year. In 1966, a school psychologist's report on then-11-year-old Porter offered not a single word of hope. He had missed 38 school days out of 100. He was "hostile."
He needed "urgent help, educationally and socially."
Home offered no solutions. Clara Porter, records show, was raising her family alone, relying on public aid. The year Porter turned 16, his eldest brother, Larry, was shot to death by Chicago police after they said Larry robbed and beat a cab driver.
From the time Anthony Porter turned 17 until he was sent to death row 10 years later, he was questioned for 26 different crimes, court records show. In most of the cases, including three for murder, Porter was sent home without being charged or the charges were later dropped. He was convicted of robbery, bail jumping and aggravated battery.
The stakes climbed in August 1982 when police questioned Porter about a double homicide in Washington Park. A police lineup photo from that night shows Porter, in turquoise high-top sneakers, beside four other men who are staring straight ahead. Porter's eyes are fixed on the floor.
Despite his denials to police, a jury convicted Porter of murder, armed robbery, unlawful use of a weapon and unlawful restraint, he was sent by a judge to death row.
Last September, with his lethal injection 50 hours away, concerns about Porter's mental competence led officials to delay the execution. The psychologists couldn't agree about whether Porter understood, as the law requires, that he was going to be put to death.
One intelligence test determined that Porter's IQ was 51, in the range of mental retardation. But a couple of the psychologists concluded that Porter was purposely failing test questions and was faking mental illness to dodge execution.
Then, as a hearing was being conducted on Porter's competence, a group of Northwestern University students helped track down another suspect, who admitted that he had committed the 1982 killings. Porter was freed, having spent a year in jail and more than 15 years on Death Row for the crime.
The question about his intellectual abilities never was resolved. Even his closest friends seem uncertain about the answer.
But among hundreds of opinions rendered by the experts, one seems to describe so many of his current relationships: "He is a lonely person with strong needs for closeness," one neuropsychologist wrote. ". . . Such persons have more intense need experiences and tend to seek out relations with others and often become more vulnerable to the manipulations of others."