Innocence Project receives subpoena for notes, tapes

Christina Salter

The Medill Innocence Project is caught in an ongoing legal battle with the Cook County state’s attorney office, and will not turn over the documents subpoenaed in the case of a man convicted of murder 31 years ago, said Medill Dean John Lavine.

The attorney’s office has requested access to all e-mails, student grades, course syllabi, expense reports and unpublished notes and tapes from students formerly involved in the Investigative Journalism class, who investigated the case of Anthony McKinney. McKinney was convicted of killing a security guard in 1978 in Harvey, a Chicago suburb, and has been in prison for the last 31 years.

Beginning in 2003, students in Prof. David Protess’s Investigative Journalism class – as part of Medill’s Innocence Project – researched McKinney’s case at the request of McKinney’s brother. According to the Medill Innocence Project Web site, nine student reporting teams were involved with the project over three years, and in 2006 their research was given to the Center of Wrongful Convictions at the NU law school’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. In Oct. 2008, the Bluhm Legal Clinic filed a post-conviction petition for McKinney in the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Protess’s program assistant and the lawyer representing NU both said Protess could not speak to the media until after the next hearing date.

Earlier, Protess told the Chicago Tribune that prosecutors were provided with the audio, videotapes and documents related to on-the-record interviews conducted by students. Last spring, the state’s attorney office filed the subpoena requesting all additional materials related to the students’ work in the Investigative Journalism class.

School officials said these requests are excessive and irrelevant to the McKinney case. The unpublished materials are protected by Illinois reporters’ privilege, said Richard O’Brien, the lawyer representing NU. In addition, the students’ grades are protected by federal privacy laws, Lavine said.

“It would be illegal to (turn over the grades),” Lavine said. “…Frankly, even if I could, I wouldn’t share them.”

O’Brien has filed briefs on NU’s behalf in response to the subpoena, and oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 10. The judge might rule on the case then or take additional time, O’Brien said.

According to court documents filed by the prosecutors, “justice requires an objective review of all evidence, not simply the evidence the school now feels is supportive of their version of events.” The documents reject claims that the students’ materials are protected by the First Amendment or reporters’ privilege laws.

The briefs also state that prosecutors only received a “tiny portion” of student materials and suggests students may have been motivated to find evidence in favor of the defendant for good grades.

Phone calls to the communications department of the Cook County state’s attorney office yesterday afternoon were not returned.

Lavine said no one has ever doubted the work of students in the long-running Protess class, which has a history of overturning convictions. The claim that the journalism students are not covered by reporters’ privilege is almost “laughable,” he said.

“(It’s) students doing exactly what great journalism ought to do: seeking the truth, seeking the facts,” Lavine said.

While working on the McKinney case as a student in spring 2004, Evan Benn helped track down and interview a man in St. Louis who said McKinney was not present at the murder in question. The suggestion that students were motivated to find evidence by grades is “ridiculous,” said Benn, Medill ’04.

“Our only motivation was to find the truth,” he said. “David (Protess) always told us that the way to get an A is to uncover the truth, whether it reaches guilt or innocence.”

The students’ research by itself is not valid for use in further trials concerning this case, Lavine said. Instead of requesting further materials, the court should be re-investigating the student research in order to determine whether McKinney’s conviction was valid, he said.”Instead of doing their job, they appear to be spending their time worrying about the grades of journalism students at Northwestern,” Lavine said.

Benn, who has been following the case since he graduated, said due to the long delay and new developments, he is not as hopeful as he once was.

“I do hope that the judge who is overseeing this case will rule on the side of the First Amendment,” he said. “(Then) we can move on to the important matter, which is whether or not Anthony (McKinney) deserves to be in jail.”

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