Medill prof awarded for work with wrongfully convicted

Sheila Burt and Sheila Burt

CHICAGO — Journalism Prof. David Protess received a prestigious citizenship award with a $100,000 cash prize in December and said he will use part of the money to launch a support system to help wrongfully convicted individuals adjust to society after being released from prison.

Protess, founder of the Medill Innocence Project, was named 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, at a press conference Dec. 4 at 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, who died in March of an apparent heart attack. Williams, who served 18 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted for a rape and double murder, was released from prison in 1996 as a result of efforts by Protess and his students.

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

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 portion of the money will be used to expand the Innocence Project’s focus to include investigations all over the nation, Protess said.

Aaron Patterson, one of the exonerated individuals former Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned at the Law School in January 2002, 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 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.

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 include Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, 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 was formally presented the award Dec. 14 at a ceremony in New York.

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Medill Prof. David Protess accepts a $100,000 prize Dec. 4 for his work with the wrongfully convicted. The award will help him expand the project.

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sheila burt/the daily northwestern