Monday, November 9, 2009

Injustice in Illinois

Injustice in Illinois

Ari Berman

The Nation



There's a very important editorial in The Nation this

week that I hope everyone will take the time to read.

It's about the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney,

who's been in prison for thirty-one years for a murder

he did not commit. I'm posting the relevant portions below.


    On the evening of September 15, 1978, a white

    security guard named Donald Lundahl was murdered in

    a robbery gone awry in a racially fraught southern

    suburb of Chicago. Police fingered Anthony McKinney,

    an 18-year-old African-American with no criminal

    record, as the killer. The prosecution sought death

    by lethal injection; the judge sentenced McKinney to

    life in prison.


    McKinney has long maintained his innocence. Based on

    newly uncovered evidence, there's strong reason to

    believe that he has spent thirty-one years in prison

    for a crime he did not commit.


    ...In 2000 the Land of Lincoln's Republican

    governor, George Ryan, issued a moratorium on the

    death penalty, and in 2003 he granted clemency to

    all death-row inmates. Ryan announced his decision

    at Northwestern University, citing the work of

    Northwestern journalism professor David Protess and

    his students at the Medill School of Journalism, who

    had uncovered evidence that helped free five wrongly

    convicted men from death row.


    In 2003 Protess and his students began examining

    McKinney's case. Over three years of painstaking

    reporting, they unearthed startling new evidence:

    the prosecution's two main witnesses, 15 and 18 at

    the time of the trial, recanted their testimony

    during interviews with the students, claiming they

    were beaten by the police and intimidated into

    doctoring the facts; McKinney alleged that he was

    beaten with a pipe by a detective with a history of

    police brutality before signing a sham confession;

    TV logs proved that both witnesses were watching a

    boxing match at the time of the shooting and thus

    could not have seen the murder; an ex-gang member,

    Anthony Drake, confessed on tape to being at the

    murder scene, named two perpetrators and said

    McKinney was not involved; current and former

    residents of the neighborhood confirmed they heard

    Drake and two other suspects confess to Lundahl's murder.


    In 2006 the Medill Innocence Project turned over its

    findings to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at

    Northwestern's law school. The center shared the

    evidence with the Cook County State's Attorney's

    Office, which began an internal investigation the

    following year. After more than a year of delay by

    the state, the center filed a postconviction

    petition on behalf of McKinney in October 2008,

    calling for a new trial or his immediate release.

    Following her election that November as Cook County

    State's Attorney, hardline career prosecutor Anita

    Alvarez fought the discovery of new evidence, and in

    May she issued a sweeping, unprecedented subpoena

    ordering Protess to hand over all material related

    to the McKinney case--including students' private

    memos and grades. Alvarez insultingly suggested that

    students might receive better grades for uncovering

    exculpatory evidence and claimed that Protess and

    his students were "investigators," not journalists,

    and thus not subject to the Illinois shield

    law...Apparently Alvarez has never heard of

    investigative journalism.


    ...The state's subpoena, wielded to stall justice

    and intimidate those who seek it, sets a terrible

    precedent. Lawyer Barry Scheck says that in his

    seventeen years at the Innocence Project in New

    York, he's never seen a subpoena of this nature

    directed at journalists or lawyers. Concludes

    Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at

    George Washington University, "It creates an

    enormous chilling effect that's positively glacial."


    Judge Cannon will soon rule on the validity of the

    state's subpoena. We urge her to throw it out and

    order a prompt evidentiary hearing. The kind of

    difficult reporting undertaken by the Medill

    Innocence Project should be celebrated, not

    undermined. It's shocking that the state would

    rather keep an innocent man behind bars than admit a mistake.


    Nine groups of student journalists from Medill have

    interviewed McKinney in prison. By their accounts,

    he's a fragile and gentle man who's battled severe

    depression during three decades of wrongful

    incarceration. "If the state had gotten its way,"

    Protess notes, "he would have been executed long ago."


I was one of those students. I took Protess's class in

the spring of 2004 and worked on McKinney's case. The

experience became the highlight of my time at Medill. My

team and I were just twenty-one and twenty-two at the

time, thrust into unfamiliar environs on the South Side

of Chicago and elsewhere, trying to ferret out the facts

of a murder that occurred before any of us were born.

David's class, more than any other, taught me how to be

a reporter, how to make make difficult decisions in a

quick and decisive manner and how to always strive for

justice and empathy in my work. (CNN anchor and McKinney

alum Nicole Lapin has also posted a great piece about

her own experiences.)


Find out the truth, David told us. That was his only

mandate. Our work on the McKinney case strongly

convinced me of his innocence. The facts were startling

and overwhelming. We hoped that after the Center on

Wrongful Convictions shared our evidence with the Cook

County State's Attorney's office, the state would see

things from our vantage point, treat the facts with

respect and come to a serious conclusion about

McKinney's innocence, granting him a new trial or full

release. That hasn't happened. Instead, the state has

stalled its own investigation and hit Protess and his

students with an unprecedented subpoena that has far-

reaching ramifications.


It's impossible to describe what it's like to work on a

wrongful convictions case until you've actually done it.

The work eats at you and wrenches at your heart. This

case is not over. Justice can still be done. David

taught us to believe, perhaps naively, that the truth is

powerful enough to set someone free.




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