NEW: Prof awarded $100,000 for efforts to help wrongfully convicted

Sheila Burt

A Northwestern journalism professor received a prestigious citizenship award with a $100,000 cash prize and said Thursday that he will use a portion of the money to launch a support system to help wrongfully convicted individuals adjust to society after being released from prison.

Journalism Prof. David Protess, founder of the Medill Innocence Project, was named the winner of the 2003 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, an award The Nation Institute gives to a U.S. citizen “who has challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous, imaginative and socially responsible work of significance.”

“(Protess) is the ideal fulfillment of the criteria,” said Hamilton Fish, president of The Nation Institute, said at a press conference Thursday on the Chicago Campus.

The Medill Innocence Project — a collaborative effort among journalism students and professors, private investigators and lawyers — has helped free eight innocent men from Illinois prisons in the past 12 years.

Protess said the pilot program is crucial because the exonerated often “enter a brave new world without any kind of networking.” The program will help the individuals get needed medical and psychological counseling, as well as job training and referrals.

“It really is an important amount of money, and I intend to use it for the causes I believe in,” said Protess, who quickly credited his students, Chicago journalists and lawyers for their investigative efforts to free the wrongfully convicted.

The program will be named “Life After Exoneration: The Dennis Williams Project” in memory of Dennis Williams, an exonerated man who died in March of an apparent heart attack. Williams, who served 18 years on death row for a rape and double murder he was not guilty of, was released from prison in 1996 as a result of Protess and his students’ efforts.

“I really believe Dennis would be alive today if he received this treatment,” Protess said.

Exonerated individuals often wait more than four years and “jump through multiple hoops,” before receiving any form of compensation for their time spent in prison, Protess said. These hoops, he added, include lengthy processes within the Illinois Court of Claims and the Illinois State Legislature to receive compensation.

Protess said he views the $100,000 as “seed money to hopefully attract a broad foundation of support so we can institutionalize the program.”

Another part of the money will be used to expand the focus of the Innocence Project to include investigations across the country, Protess added.

Aaron Patterson, one of the exonerated individuals former Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned at the Law School in January, praised Protess’ efforts and legacy in reforming the Illinois death penalty system. Patterson spent 17 years in prison, including 13 on death row, after being wrongfully convicted in 1989 of murdering a South Side couple.

Patterson called Protess “our Captain Kirk.”

“Dave is solely responsible for the moratorium in Illinois,” Patterson said.

Patterson also recalled adjustment troubles he experienced when he first was released. He said simple tasks such as paying bills and understanding the increased price of normal items such as groceries were difficult.

“We got out here and it’s like we were on another planet,” Patterson said.

He said the exonerated must deal with finding a job, housing, and transportation — in addition to suffering from post-traumatic stress orders and trying to receive rightful compensation.

“It’s a struggle,” Patterson said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Patterson, who also announced his plans to run for Illinois Representative in the 6th District, said Protess inspired him to help others. He currently investigates possible wrongful conviction cases with Protess and on his own.

“I, too, am a student with Professor Protess, but I took a correspondence course,” Patterson joked.

Medill Dean Loren Ghiglione said Protess “educates all of us” in the possibilities of a university becoming a place to train students beyond the realm of traditional schooling.

“There are very few courses that you sense students are really thinking about their lives,” Ghiglione said. “Clearly, this Innocence Project and what (Protess) does with his students is an amazing experience.”

The Puffin/Nation prize is jointly given by the Puffin Foundation and The Nation Institute, a New York City-based foundation created by the owners of The Nation magazine. Past recipients of the award are Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers Union; and Robert Moses, a civil rights activist and founder of the Algebra Project, which helps low-income and minority students improve their math skills.

Protess will be formally presented the award Dec. 14 at a ceremony in New York.