Targeted for revealing the truth

January 19, 2010

Nick Burt explains what's at stake in the witch-hunt of students in the Northwestern University Medill Innocence Project by the Cook County State's Attorney office.

STUDENT JOURNALISTS in Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project are undoubtedly familiar with the machinations of the criminal justice system: sleazy prosecutors, character assassinations, unfounded charges.

Over the past two decades, their work re-investigating criminal cases has helped exonerate 11 men wrongfully convicted of murder, including five who had been death row prisoners in Illinois.

But since announcing that they have uncovered yet another false murder conviction, the students, their university and Medill School of Journalism professor David Protess have had to wage their own battle against ongoing efforts by Cook County prosecutors to hamper the project's research, intimidate the students and deny a new trial to the prisoner.

At a time when the death penalty has never appeared more discredited--a widely read exposé in The New Yorker last September concluded that the state of Texas had executed an innocent man in 2004--some of capital punishment's proponents have decided that maintaining public support will require them to also kill the media messenger.

Professor David Protess and other members of the Innocence Project celebrating with Anthony Porter after he was exonerated in 1999
Professor David Protess and other members of the Innocence Project celebrating with Anthony Porter after he was exonerated in 1999

Since 1999, Protess has overseen the Innocence Project as part of an investigative journalism course at Northwestern's Medill School in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. The program has taken up re-researching the cases of about 50 prisoners over the past decade.

Not all of these cases have panned out, but the ones that did have de-legitimated the death penalty in big ways. The Ford Heights Four case gained the group acclaim--four prisoners were exonerated of the murder of a suburban couple, and the men won $36 million in damages. Students' research into the case of Anthony Porter exonerated him and won his release from death row after he came within two days of being executed.

The Innocence Project's findings, which exposed that the courts were sentencing innocent people to death, led to the 2001 moratorium on executions in Illinois. Protess reportedly seeks out cases with suspicious factors, such as convictions with no physical evidence. One of these was Anthony McKinney, who has been in prison now for more than 30 years.

PROSECUTORS CHARGED McKinney with the September 1978 murder of Donald Lundahl, a security guard who was shot at close range while sitting in his car in the southern suburb of Harvey. Police had apprehended McKinney, then 18 years old, near the site of the murder. McKinney claimed he was running from gang members when police stopped him, and officers found no weapon, blood or other direct evidence that would suggest his involvement in the crime.

During a later investigation, another teenage suspect told police that he had seen McKinney, from 50 yards away, threaten Lundahl with a shotgun. McKinney says that when he was re-arrested, interrogators beat him with a pipe until he signed a confession that they had typed. He was convicted of the crime in 1981, despite a lack of physical evidence, and was sentenced to life in prison. He has maintained his innocence since.

In 2003, Protess' class re-opened the case, and nine groups of students spent three years poring over the evidence and re-interviewing witnesses. Over the course of the investigation, students located the two key eyewitnesses, who admitted in videotaped interviews that they had falsely fingered McKinney as the murderer after they were beaten by police detective Coleman McCarthy, who had battled brutality charges while on the force.

Students also tracked down two of the people McKinney had claimed were chasing him when he was arrested, and both corroborated his story. The students were also able to identify the likely perpetrators, a group that included a convicted killer whom seven witnesses told them had admitted to participating in the murder.

Protess wrapped up his case and forwarded copies of affidavits, tapes and interview transcripts to the Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern's Law School, so that they could petition for a new trial or to have his sentence vacated.

But Alvarez, a newly elected Democrat, didn't appreciate the student journalists fact-checking her office's work. Last May, she subpoenaed the school, demanding that the Innocence Project surrender e-mails, student grades, grading criteria, the class syllabus and records of expenses incurred during the reporting--things that Alvarez claimed in court documents would show "bias, interest and motive...on the part of all or some of the students."

Alvarez contends that the stories were invented by the interview subjects, and that police interrogators sent to re-question some of the subjects were able to get new, contradictory affidavits, these being the definitive ones.

The state's attorney's office initially rejected the request for a new trial for McKinney, arguing that the material presented wasn't "new." Meanwhile, prosecutors went about trying to cast doubt on the material--which in reality was not only new but soundly damaging to their case for keeping McKinney imprisoned.

ALVAREZ AND her office coupled their court order with an attack against Protess and the Innocence Project in the local media.

Officials have publicly accused the students of bribing witnesses with money for drugs and "flirting" with interview subjects to get information. Alvarez's spokesperson offered media outlets a 1996 memo containing discredited innuendo about the Innocence Project's research ethics that the office had drawn up after the group helped free the Ford Heights Four.

Protess says the school has been subpoenaed in the past, but only for relevant information, not as a means to judge the motivations of the project. Protess has refused to hand over any of the information, and has remained defiant, telling PoliticsDaily that he'd be willing to accept jail time: "I would rather go to jail honoring the long tradition of journalists who have refused to turn over unpublished information than comply with an illegal subpoena. That's intolerable."

He's also tried keeping defenders of the death penalty on the defensive, reportedly asking in a November court hearing whether Alvarez feels embarrassment that her office tried to execute a potentially innocent man.

Students say the charges of distorting their research is baseless. "I think I speak for my fellow alums when I say this class was never about grades," writes one former student, who has since taken a job for CNN. "It has always been about searching for truth and justice for people whose cases didn't get due diligence from a bogged-down system. This was about journalism in its purest and most passionate form."

Charges of loose ethics seem especially ill-targeted. Protess himself has turned down requests to speak at anti-death penalty functions out of concern that doing so would amount to him advocating a position on the question. He says he just wants to find out what really happened, as any good journalist should do.

Lawyers representing the university have argued that the students are protected by the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act, which shields journalists from disclosing information gained from sources under the promise of confidentiality. Prosecutors contend that the students are not really journalists, and thus deserve no such protection.

A ruling in Alvarez's favor would seriously damage the ability of the Innocence Project to talk to sources in future investigations; witnesses and others with information will be reluctant to go on-the-record for fear of implicating themselves in those or other crimes.

At this point, the university and dean of the Medill School appear to be supporting Protess and the Innocence Project on the case, and supporters such as Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn have kept the story alive by advocating their cause in print.

On January 11, a group of 18 major media organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and both Chicago dailies, filed an amicus curiae brief in Cook County Circuit Court supporting the students' legal protections. Judge Diane Cannon had scheduled the next status call in the case for February 10.

Protess has other cases that are close to completion, according to media reports, and bringing to light additional false convictions would be not just a service to those wrongly incarcerated; it would further discredit a sordid system and aid those seeking not just a moratorium but full abolition. The fight for Protess and his class is a fight for all those who look forward to that outcome.

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