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Ciolino v. Ekl

Illinois Supreme Court affirms revival of investigator’s defamation claims, holding that screening of allegedly defamatory documentary film in Chicago constituted additional publication triggering new statute of limitations period.

Private investigator Paul Ciolino sued several defendants, including attorney Terry Ekl, for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy, arising primarily from the documentary film Murder in the Park. After the trial court dismissed Ciolino’s claims as barred by the statute of limitations, the appellate court reversed as to all but one defendant, reviving Ciolino’s claims as timely. Ekl appealed the reversal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which affirmed, holding that the claims were timely, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. 

Ciolino did investigative work for the Innocence Project, a program run by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. One case that Ciolino worked on involved Anthony Porter’s conviction for the 1982 murders of two people in Chicago’s Washington Park. Ciolino obtained a videotaped confession from a different individual, Alstory Simon, who later pleaded guilty to the murders, resulting in the vacating of Porter’s conviction. Porter’s exoneration garnered significant publicity and was considered by many to be the impetus for the subsequent death penalty moratorium in Illinois. 

The tactics Ciolino used to obtain Simon’s confession soon came under heavy scrutiny. Ekl and another attorney, James Sotos, began representing Simon and filed a petition for postconviction relief. The petition included evidence that two witnesses who implicated Simon had recanted their statements, which the witnesses claimed were induced by promises made to them by the Innocence Project’s founder, David Protess. The Cook County State’s Attorney launched an investigation into the Innocence Project’s journalistic and investigative practices, following which Simon’s conviction was also vacated. 

In June 2015, defendant William Crawford published a book titled Justice Perverted: How the Innocence Project of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Sent an Innocent Man to Prison. Crawford theorized that Ciolino and others had framed Simon in order to secure Porter’s release and ultimately end the death penalty in Illinois. The book inspired the Murder in the Park documentary, created by defendants Andrew Hale and Whole Truth Films. The documentary contains interviews and commentary from Simon, Hale, Ekl, Sotos, Crawford and others, advancing the claim that Ciolino illegally obtained a false confession from Simon.

Ciolino filed suit in January 2018, though he was deemed to have filed his complaint in April 2016 by virtue of the state’s savings statute because he had previously filed a counterclaim in a separate lawsuit. The defendants nonetheless moved to dismiss under Illinois’ one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims, arguing that Murder in the Park had premiered in November 2014 in New York City, at the 2014 DOC NYC film festival, and was played at the Cleveland International Film Festival in March 2015, both of which were advertised and covered in various media outlets. The trial court granted the motions, finding that Ciolino’s claims were time-barred.

The appellate court reversed the dismissals as to Ekl and all but one of the other defendants. The court analyzed whether the “discovery rule” applied such that the statute of limitations was tolled until Ciolino knew or should have known of the publication of the allegedly defamatory material. As Ciolino had argued that he was unaware of the Murder in the Park screenings in New York and Cleveland and only learned of the film’s existence when it was shown in Chicago in July 2015, the court held that factual issues precluded dismissal. The Illinois Supreme Court then granted Ekl’s petition for leave to appeal to the high court. 

Although the parties continued to argue over whether the discovery rule applies to defamation claims, the court never reached the issue. Instead, it focused on the “single-publication rule,” adopted by statute in Illinois, which, in essence, fixes the accrual of a defamation or invasion of privacy claim upon the first publication in a given mass-disseminated medium. Clarifying that not all repetitions of allegedly defamatory material appearing in the same medium are subject to the single-publication rule, the court held that the July 2015 screening of Murder in the Park in Chicago was a separate publication that triggered a new limitations period. The court reasoned that the single-publication rule applies when defamatory material is mass published in a medium where delayed receipt is incidental to the medium’s mode of distribution, such as with multiple shipments of a book or magazine that is distributed nationally. Unlike the book or magazine examples, or even Showtime’s mass publication of Murder in the Park beginning in February 2016, the court explained that the documentary was first screened to a limited audience in New York City in November 2014. The result, according to the court, was that the subsequent limited screenings in Cleveland and Chicago constituted separate publications, which were shown to new and distinct audiences at different locations, dates, and times. Because those later publications occurred within one year of Ciolino filing suit, his claims were deemed timely.

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Jordan Meddy.