Letter to the Editor: Protess is not vital to Project’s success

As a Medill alum, I’ve received several email requests to sign a petition in support of investigative journalism professor David Protess. But I’ve declined.

I fully support investigative journalism and the work that students in the class have done over the years and, as a former student, Protess’s class had a profound effect on my career and my life. After all, when an exonerated death row inmate thanks you for helping to save his life, there’s not much that could have a deeper impact.

But the work done at Medill both in class and through the Innocence Project has become about a single man. That’s not healthy for the school or the University, which has become obvious as Protess comes under fire (justly or not) and the evidence in cases like Anthony McKinney’s take a backseat.

Protess has taken a role beyond investigative journalism, adopting the mantle of advocate and crusader, with his students serving as reporters. I’d argue that the school would be better served by revisiting the now-blurry line between advocacy and reporting and setting some ground rules – and expectations – for both.

Consider the following story of who Protess chose to fight for – or more importantly, who he didn’t – before you label me an agent of an unjust administration. In 1998, I took Protess’s class and worked on the Aaron Patterson/Eric Caine case for two quarters; several students continued to investigate for years after we graduated. A death row inmate, Patterson was exonerated in 2003, in part because of the reporting our team conducted.

But Eric Caine, serving life in prison, languished for eight more years and was only released on March 17, without the help of Protess or the Innocence Project. The truth is, Protess had promised he would not let Caine’s case fade away, that he’d secure a private attorney for him. But Protess never contacted Caine in prison after that or secured private counsel for him, according to Caine who says his letters to Protess went unanswered.

In 2008, depressed, hopeless and feeling abandoned by Protess, Caine wrote to lawyers at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. His lawyer told me he was shocked that Caine had been in prison for so long after Patterson was released. The evidence amassed by our group and by Patterson’s lawyers and investigators made it far easier to file an Amended Petition for Post Conviction Relief. If they’d have known about Caine sooner he could likely have been freed years ago, the lawyer said.

For Caine, Protess’s abandonment felt like a betrayal. You might say our group should have fought harder, too. It haunts me that we didn’t. But we had not crossed the line from reporting to advocating as had Protess. We backed off because we felt we’d done all the investigative reporting we could, and we trusted Protess when he said he would not let up until Caine was freed. Protess and I had our disagreements, but I supported him for years because I believed in him, believed he’d never leave someone like Caine behind. That’s a kind of power and trust no man should have – or have to bear.

Investigative journalism at Medill might not be the same if Protess isn’t involved. But that doesn’t mean that students will no longer be able to help people. Protess is a pioneer and a wonderful teacher; I hope he returns to Medill. He deserves due process, and students deserve an explanation.

But intertwining investigative journalism and the pursuit of justice through outright advocacy – and pinning it so deeply on any one person isn’t good for the school or the wrongly-convicted. If disentangled, even more can be done to further the core skills and demands of investigative reporting – separate from advocacy and spotlight-seeking. Both are needed, but tied so closely together and to one person, too much falls through the cracks. Just ask Eric Caine.

-Jennifer Merritt

Medill ‘98