Updated: Northwestern explains Protess decision, accuses professor of lying, doctoring emails

Brian Rosenthal

In the days after Northwestern officials removed Medill Prof. David Protess as the professor of his popular Investigative Journalism course last month, members of the NU community demanded an explanation.

The University delivered one Wednesday, accusing the 29-year professor of lying and doctoring emails to avoid turning over documents to prosecutors who had accused Protess and his students of crossing ethical boundaries in investigating the murder conviction of Anthony McKinney.

“In sum, Protess knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions,” University spokesman Al Cubbage wrote in a statement distributed after a Medill faculty meeting in which University Provost Dan Linzer and Medill Dean John Lavine released the findings of a review of the high-profile professor.

The five-month review, which centered on examinations of the hard drives of Protess’s work and private computers, “uncovered considerable evidence” of misleading and altered e-mail messages, according to Cubbage’s statement.

Protess, the founder of the Medill Innocence Project, called the statement “blatantly false” and “malicious.” If he made any misleading statements, Protess said, it was because attorneys asked him to remember specific emails sent five years earlier and while his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. He added that misunderstandings were exacerbated by the “imprecise” nature of email communication.

Protess accused the University of “scapegoating” him to protect its reputation and cover up missteps by other officials attempting to respond to the a subpoena about the Medill Innocence Project’s three-year investigation of the McKinney case.

“The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of blame to go around here, and I share it…but as in all complicated situations involving Northwestern University, when there is negative media attention, typically one person is assigned blame,” said Protess, referring in part to a February controversy over a sex-toy demonstration in psychology Prof. John Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class. “No matter how loyal I am, they will be disloyal to me as soon as things don’t go right public relations-wise.”

Cubbage declined further comment. Linzer and Lavine did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. New Investigative Journalism Prof. Alec Klein and longtime course teaching assistant Sergio Serritella each declined to comment. Several other Medill professors declined to publicly comment.

Prof. Douglas Foster called it a “heartbreaking day” for Medill and NU.

“It’s heartbreaking that one of our most esteemed colleagues and the University find themselves at such terrible odds that both sides are flinging accusations back and forth,” he said.

What does ‘everything’ mean?

The most dramatic accusation flung Wednesday involved an email sent by Protess to his program assistant, Rebekah Wanger, in November 2007.

In that email, Protess wrote to Wanger that his position on the memos about the Innocence Project’s investigation of McKinney “is that we share everything with (McKinney’s) legal team, and don’t keep copies.” But when University attorneys asked for emails related to the McKinney investigation, Protess allegedly provided a doctored message that simply said the position was that “we don’t keep copies.”

According to the University, Protess altered the message to hide that he had given student memos to McKinney’s attorneys because he knew that if NU officials discovered that, they would be forced to turn over all of those memos to prosecutors investigating the case.

Protess admitted Wednesday to altering the email, but said the change was made to avoid misleading the University.

The word “everything,” in that context, meant every document in the Innocence Project’s official McKinney file, Protess said. But it did not mean every student document created during the investigation, because many of those documents were of a personal nature and thus not added to the file, he said. An uninformed reader of the email, then, would get the wrong idea about exactly which documents were turned over, Protess said.

“Everybody was on me to be more precise, so I removed something so it wouldn’t be false or misleading,” he said.

“I don’t understand University officials that will quote from one line in one email message sent four years ago and try to make something out of it,” he added. “It’s ridiculous.”

Wanger did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Lies or bad memory?

Protess also countered that instances in which University officials deemed him “misleading” were simply failures in his memory.

While the subpoena into the McKinney case was filed in 2008 and is still being processed, it concerns emails sent between 2003 and 2006, when the Innocence Project was actively investigating the McKinney case. That time lapse led to some issues, especially because his wife underwent treatment for breast cancer during that time.

“How in the world am I supposed to remember precisely what number of documents went from Medill to McKinney’s attorneys” , Protess said of his attempts to remember what he turned over.

NU has acknowledged the memory issue but has since changed its tune to concentrate blame on Protess, the professor said. In an attempt to prove his point, Protess provided a copy of an email sent to him by NU General Counsel Thomas Cline in October.

“I recognize that it is often difficult to recall fully and accurately matters that occurred several years ago,” Cline wrote in the provided email. “It now appears…that some of your statements and recollections regarding materials published to the Center may not have been completely accurate.”

Cline could not be reached for comment.

‘Tense’ meeting

University officials took a decidedly different approach Wednesday.

During the faculty meeting, Lavine and Linzer discussed the review for an hour and took questions for 45 minutes, Foster said. Afterwards, the faculty voted to ask Protess to come to a similar meeting to tell his side of the story.

The mood was solemn but respectful, Foster said. Another Medill faculty member, who asked to speak anonymously due to the sensitivity of the subject, described the meeting as “tense,” as some professors were completely convinced by the presentation and others had their doubts.

Foster, who described himself as one of the ones with doubts, expressed appreciation that Lavine responded to calls for an explanation for his decision last month to replace Protess as the professor of Medill’s Investigative Journalism course. Last week, Protess announced he was taking a leave of absence from NU in the spring to create his own Chicago Innocence Project, which plans to draw students from several Chicago universities.

The Medill Innocence Project, which has freed 12 innocent men from prison, including five from death row, under Protess’s watch, will continue under the direction of Klein, a former investigative business reporter at The Washington Post.

“The Medill Innocence Project’s work and achievements have been instrumental in pursuing the truth and righting wrongs,” Cubbage wrote in his statement. “Northwestern University and Medill are committed to this work and its continuance.”

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