After hearing, future of Medill Innocence Project unclear

Brian Rosenthal

In the aftermath of prosecutors’ announcing the first hard evidence that Medill Innocence Project students may have violated the law while investigating a murder case, students and faculty across Northwestern had one question on their minds: What does this mean for the future?

What does it mean for the future of the project, which has freed 11 innocent men and brought a decade of good publicity to NU? What does it mean for the future of the relationship between Medill Prof. David Protess, the director of the Innocence Project who steadfastly refuses to turn over any student documents, and the University, which just turned over 800 pages of them?

And what does it mean for the future of Anthony McKinney, who remains in jail as attorneys fight over documents?

Few answers surfaced Thursday, a day after Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stewart Stack told a circuit judge that prosecutors had obtained a copy of a potentially illegal secret recording made by Innocence Project students while investigating the 1981 McKinney conviction.

Officials, including University spokesman Al Cubbage, have declined to answer specific questions about a reported review into Innocence Project procedures. NU hired two former federal prosecutors to conduct the review two weeks ago, but they haven’t questioned Protess yet, he said in an interview.

The review’s timeline is also unknown.

Protess called the review a “good idea” and “constructive.”

“I’m a little surprised that we’ve been doing the work we have for 11 years without a review,” he said. “Since what we do is so public, it’s a little bit unusual.”

Some changes have already been made, Protess said. Those have mostly focused on the project’s policy regarding document control.

Protess maintains the recording, made during an interview of convicted killer and potential alternative suspect Tony Drake, was legal because it was done to protect the safety of the students and based on Drake’s criminal history. He cited a 1996 letter written by then-Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan.

Letters from the attorney general are not binding legal precedent. A spokesman for the Illinois Attorney General’s office said the office couldn’t yet comment.

Even if the recording was legal, it may be in violation of Medill’s student integrity code. When asked about the recording and the code, Medill Associate Dean Mary Nesbitt simply said the code prevents students from violating the law. Dean John Lavine has declined to comment. Michele Bitoun, senior director of undergraduate education, could not be reached Thursday.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists advises all journalists to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

In a written statement, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the recording raises “serious legal and ethical questions about the methods that the professor and his students employed during the investigation.”

It is unclear if the recording will also raise questions – either from prosecutors or the public – about other work done by the Innocence Project. Will it undo a decade of positive work?

“Good question,” Cubbage replied in an interview outside the courtroom Wednesday.

Protess had a more certain answer: no.

“The people focus on the many good works we do,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much discussion of the reporting methods we use to right wrongs and free the innocent.”

The 29-year NU professor also said his relationship to the University he “loves” is “completely unchanged” by Wednesday’s developments.

Alexandra Johnson (Medill ’10), a former Innocence Project student who did not work on the McKinney case, said she hoped the news wouldn’t discourage students from joining the class in the future.

Johnson is currently the project’s staff reporter, but said she was speaking only in her capacity as a student.

She added that the most important consideration is the man that has been in jail for more then three decades and might be innocent.

“The result at the moment is still Anthony McKinney sitting behind bars in spite of all the evidence supporting his innocence these students have found,” she said. “That’s very disappointing.”

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