Innocence Project accused of ‘severe credibility issues’

Christina Salter

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Updated Nov. 11, 12:18 p.m.

According to a filing Tuesday, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office found a “multitude of inconsistencies” and “severe credibility issues” with research performed by students for the Medill Innocence Project.

A hearing to address oral arguments was held Tuesday at the Circuit Court for Cook County in Chicago. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office disclosed that witness Tony Drakes, a convicted criminal, accused these students of paying him off during their investigation. Drakes accused students of promising him payment for an interview.A private investigator working with the students paid a cab driver $60, according to Tuesday’s court filing.

“No money was paid to Tony Drake, only to a cab driver to transport him to a different location,” said Prof. David Protess, director of the Medill Innocence Project. Though court documents referred to the witness as Tony Drakes, the Innocence Project’s Web site and other documents use ‘Drake.’

Drakes alleged students paid him to make a video statement for their investigation into the 1982 murder conviction of Anthony McKinney. In a videotaped statement gathered by a group of students in 2004, Drakes said he was present at the murder in 1978 and that McKinney was not there at the time of the murder. Drakes said he was paid because he made a statement that exonerated McKinney, and he then used the money to buy crack cocaine, according to Tuesday’s filing.

The filing also includes statements from Michael Lane, a long-time acquaintance of Drakes who may have been with him the night of the murder. Lane said the students paid him $50 to $100 and “took him out for cocktails and dinner and flirted with him,” though he did not provide information, according to the filing.

Protess denied the claims in the prosecutor’s filing, saying it was “so filled with factual errors.”

A call Tuesday afternoon to the state’s attorney’s office was not returned.

Oral arguments in the case were scheduled for Tuesday, but after prosecutors submitted the filing, Richard O’Brien, the lawyer representing Northwestern, told Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane G. Cannon he was not prepared to respond. Cannon scheduled the next hearing for Jan. 11.

The state’s attorney’s office has requested access to all e-mails, student grades, course syllabi, expense reports and unpublished notes and tapes from former students who investigated the McKinney case.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

Students in Protess’ Investigative Journalism class – as part of Medill’s Innocence Project – began researching McKinney’s case in 2003. According to the project’s 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 School of Law’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 said his students submitted the same type of research to the court as the Innocence Project did in past overturned conviction cases, such as the Ford Heights Four case in 1996 and the Anthony Porter case in 1999.

NU officials have repeatedly said the state’s subpoena is irrelevant to the McKinney case. In October, Medill Dean John Lavine told The Daily the students’ grades are protected by federal privacy laws. O’Brien told The Daily in October the students’ unpublished reporting materials are protected by Illinois reporters’ privilege.

Protess reaffirmed Tuesday he will not give in to the state’s demands.

“I’m not about to break federal law to comply with the subpoena,” he said.Evan Benn, Medill ’04, was one of the students who interviewed Drakes in 2004. He attended the Tuesday hearing along with two other former students, and afterward said Drakes was never paid for his statement. The student investigators only agreed to pay for his cab fare to get home after they interviewed him, Benn said.

“Paying for transportation is consistent with the standards and practices of news organizations across the country,” Protess said.

Tuesday’s court filing said “it is not unreasonable to assume” that because the Investigative Reporting class does not have exams or term papers, the students earn their grades by providing evidence in support of a convict’s innocence.

The prosecutors’ filing also referenced the high volume of recent media attention focusing on the subpoena.

In response to the news publications and columnists that have “declared that the State’s attorney is somehow retaliating against the Innocence Project,” according to the filing, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Ari Berman, Medill ’04, worked on the McKinney case for two quarters. He said when students in Protess’ class were preparing to interview Drakes, paying him off or earning good grades were the last of their concerns. He said the accusations against the students’ professionalism are “really insulting.”

“(The state) is trying to stall and delay as long as possible so they don’t have to admit mistakes, don’t have to admit to a new trial and don’t have to look like a bunch of kids at NU did what the legal system couldn’t,” Berman