Sunday, October 25, 2009

Prosecutors Turn Tables on Student Journalists

Prosecutors Turn Tables on Student Journalists


New York Times

October 25, 2009


EVANSTON, Ill. - For more than a decade, classes of

students at Northwestern University's journalism school

have been scrutinizing the work of prosecutors and the

police. The investigations into old crimes, as part of

the Medill Innocence Project, have helped lead to the

release of 11 inmates, the project's director says, and

an Illinois governor once cited those wrongful

convictions as he announced he was commuting the

sentences of everyone on death row.


But as the Medill Innocence Project is raising concerns

about another case, that of a man convicted in a murder

31 years ago, a hearing has been scheduled next month in

Cook County Circuit Court on an unusual request: Local

prosecutors have subpoenaed the grades, grading

criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail

messages of the journalism students themselves.


The prosecutors, it seems, wish to scrutinize the

methods of the students this time. The university is

fighting the subpoenas.


Lawyers in the Cook County state's attorney's office say

that in their quest for justice in the old case, they

need every pertinent piece of information about the

students' three-year investigation into Anthony

McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a

security guard in 1978. Mr. McKinney's conviction is

being reviewed by a judge.


Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand

better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed

they would receive better grades if witnesses they

interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.


Northwestern University and David Protess, the professor

who leads the students and directs the Medill Innocence

Project, say the demands are ridiculously overreaching,

irrelevant to Mr. McKinney's case, in violation of the

state's protections for journalists and a breach of

federal privacy statutes - not to mention insulting.


John Lavine, the dean of the Medill School of

Journalism, said the suggestion that students might have

thought their grades were linked to what witnesses said

was "astonishing." He said he believed that federal law

barred him from providing the students grades, but that

he had no intention of doing so in any case..


A spokeswoman for Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state's

attorney, who was elected last fall, said the

prosecutors were simply trying to get to the bottom of

the McKinney case.


"At the end of the day, all we're seeking is the same

thing these students are: justice and truth," said Sally

Daly, the spokeswoman. She said the prosecutors wished

to see all statements the students received from

witnesses, whether they supported or contradicted the

notion of Mr. McKinney's innocence.


"We're not trying to delve into areas of privacy or

grades," Ms. Daly said. "Our position is that they've

engaged in an investigative process, and without any

hostility, we're seeking to get all of the information

they've developed, just as detectives and investigators turn over."


If the courts find that Mr. Protess and the journalism

school must turn over the student information, they risk

being held in contempt if they refuse, said Dick

O'Brien, a lawyer who is representing Northwestern.


But if the school gives in to such a demand, say

advocates of the Medill Innocence Project and more than

50 similar projects (most involving law schools and

legal clinics), the stakes could be still higher,

discouraging students from taking part or forcing groups

to devote time and money to legal assistance.


"Every time the government starts attacking the

messenger as opposed to the message, it can have a

chilling effect," said Barry C. Scheck, a pioneer of the

Innocence Project in New York, who said he had never

seen a similar demand from prosecutors.


In October 2003, Mr. Protess's investigative journalism

classes began looking at the case after Mr. McKinney's

brother, Michael, brought it to the attention of the

Medill Innocence Project - one of more 15,000 cases the

project has been asked to consider investigating over the years.


Mr. Protess, who has been on the faculty at Northwestern

since 1981 and began leading his investigative reporting

students on such cases in 1991, created the Medill

project in 1999, the same year he and his students drew

national attention for helping to exonerate and free

Anthony Porter, an inmate who had come within two days of execution.


The McKinney case took three years and nine teams of

student reporters, all of whom have since graduated from

Northwestern. In the end, the teams concluded that Mr.

McKinney had been wrongly convicted of killing Donald

Lundahl, a security guard, with a shotgun one evening in

September 1978 in Harvey, a southern suburb of Chicago.


The students said they had found, among other things,

that two eyewitnesses had recanted their testimony

against Mr. McKinney and could not have seen him commit

the killing because they were watching a boxing

championship (Leon Spinks vs. Muhammad Ali). The

students collected an affidavit from a gang member who,

they say, confirmed Mr. McKinney's alibi that he was

running away from gang members when the shooting took place.


The students have also suggested alternative suspects in

the case and offered witnesses who said they had heard

the others admit their involvement.


In 2006, the students took their findings to the Center

for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern's law school,

and by late last year, the claims were being considered

by a Cook County Circuit Court judge and were described

in an article in The Chicago Sun-Times and on the Medill

Innocence Project Web site.


The students provided their videotaped interviews of

critical witnesses and affidavits to the prosecutors,

but in June the prosecutors subpoenaed far more - the

students' investigative memorandums, e-mail messages,

notes from multiple interviews with witnesses and class grades.


In their quest, prosecutors have raised a central

question about the role of the students - suggesting

that they should be viewed as an "investigative agency,"

not journalists, whose unpublished materials could,

under certain circumstances, be protected under a state statute.


"The school believes it should be exempt from the

scrutiny of this honorable court and the justice system,

yet it should be deemed a purveyor of its inadequacies

to the public," a legal brief from prosecutors said.


Professional journalism groups have said the students

are clearly journalists, and offered support for their

wish not to reveal their notes. Beth Konrad, president

of the Chicago Headline Club, said the club was seeking

a discussion with Ms. Alvarez, the state's attorney.


"We want to know, what was the decision to overreach on

this?" Ms. Konrad said.


Donald M. Craven, the interim executive director of the

Illinois Press Association, questioned the prosecutors'

motives. "Taken to its logical conclusion, what they're

trying to do is dismantle the project," Mr. Craven said.


Mr. Protess said his students most assuredly functioned

as journalists and, as such, did not wish to become "an

arm of the government" by providing their notes and

private exchanges.


"It would destroy our autonomy," he said. "We function

with journalism standards and practices to guide our work."


The notion that students would have been rewarded with

better grades for witnesses who confirmed the thesis

that Mr. McKinney was innocent is simply false, he said.


"My students are told to uncover the truth, wherever

that leads them," he said. In the last four years, he

said, students had twice concluded that the convicts

whose cases they were studying were indeed guilty.


Sarah Forte, one of the students who investigated Mr.

McKinney's case and who graduated in 2006, said she was

frustrated that prosecutors were making the requests,

even as Mr. McKinney, 49, remained in a prison in

downstate Dixon.


"Why are they focusing on these unrelated things?" asked

Ms. Forte, a defense investigator at the Southern Center

for Human Rights who said she went to Northwestern

partly to get involved in Mr. Protess's project. "I

cannot even imagine what they think they are going to find."



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