Medill Innocence Project moves in a new direction

Kris Anne Bonifacio

On a March afternoon, Northwestern Prof. Alec Klein sat inside a classroom in the basement of Fisk Hall, anxiously waiting for students in the Investigative Journalism class to arrive. The Medill professor was not only worried about making a good first impression on the first day of class, but he was worried if there was even going to be any class at all.

Just two weeks before, the University announced that the class’s long-time professor, David Protess, would not be teaching the popular class that freed 11 innocent men from prison, including five from death row.

Medill sent an email to the six students signed up for the class, notifying them of the change. The students then filed a petition with the NU administration, asking for Protess to be reinstated or at least for a reason for the professor switch.

When the class began in the last week of March, students had yet to receive word back from Medill. Klein, whom the school tapped to replace Protess, sat in Fisk B11 with teaching assistant and private investigator Sergio Serritella, wondering if students will come through the doors.

“There was mutiny before the class even began,” Klein said. “I was so happy when the students actually started to show up. I even wrote a note to Sergio as students filed in, and I said, ‘We have a class.'”

Ten weeks later, the first group of Investigative Journalism students under Klein’s tutelage published a story on the work they did during the class, the first since the program’s inception in 1999. The students had been working on the case of Donald Watkins, a man convicted of murder and home invasion in 2007.

During the course of the quarter, the students were able to uncover new information about an injury of the prisoner that raises doubts on whether he was capable of committing the crime. They also tracked down the prosecution’s key witness and pointed out several inconsistencies with statements she gave on different occasions.

Scrambling after the sudden switch

Klein said he was literally scrambling after he was asked to teach the class. He had two weeks between the announcement and when the class was scheduled to begin to find a case for the students to investigate.

Klein reached out to Serritella to help him find a case. Serritella heard about a case from a law professor in Chicago, and after looking into it, Klein said he thought it would be a good case for the students.

But despite finding a case just before the class started, the surrounding debacle over the professor switch raised the possibility there may not even be a class in the first place.

The students demanded for Protess’ reinstatement or, at the very least, an explanation of his removal from the teaching post, said Monica Kim, a recent Medill graduate who took the class this past spring.

“When we signed up for the class, he was the one who spoke to us all,” Kim said. “We were all confused. We weren’t given any reasons why he was removed.”

On the first day of class, Klein said he sat with Serritella in the empty room, apprehensive of whether students will show up – given that they had filed a petition with Medill beforehand regarding the switch.

“I said two things to Sergio as we were waiting,” Klein said. “One, I hope (the students) give us a chance. And two, you know, there are not many times in your life where you get a chance to prove yourself. This is one of them.”

For Lara Takenaga, a recent Medill graduate who took the class in the spring, the professor switch didn’t deter her from taking the class. She said she was curious to see how the class would go under someone else’s leadership.

The case

Watkins’ story began in the west side of Chicago on Dec. 5, 2004. A woman, Verlisha Willis, was hanging out with a friend in the living room of her apartment, while her boyfriend, Alfred Curry, sat in the bedroom with Willis’ 7-year-old daughter.

After midnight, Willis and her friend allegedly heard two loud bangs, and someone grabbed her from behind a wall in the apartment and demanded money. The man, who was carrying a gun on one hand, allegedly dragged Willis with another into the bedroom, where she found her boyfriend, Curry, dead.

Eventually Willis and her daughter found their way out of the apartment, and Willis called 911 and flagged down two police officers driving by.

Willis identified the man as an acquaintance called Speedy. Police tracked down the name to Donald Watkins. After hours of investigation and interrogation, Watkins allegedly confessed to the crime, but the confession was not recorded.

Watkins, for his part, had a record of robbery – armed and unarmed – in the past. Three years after the crime occurred, he was convicted of the murder and home invasion and sentenced to 56 years in prison. He filed an appeal shortly after, but it was denied in 2010. Currently, Watkins is in between lawyers.


Throughout the course of the 10-week period, students were able to track down several people involved with the case. Most importantly, they were able to track down the key witness, Verlisha Willis, who was initially the only person to identify Watkins as the murderer.

Tracking down Willis, however, wasn’t easy, Takenaga said.

“She had an address, but she wasn’t in a directory where we looked,” Takenaga said. “We ended up finding her on the street about two blocks from where the crime occurred.”

Upon interviewing Willis, she told the students she had done heroin moments before the crime occurred, raising doubts as to whether her statements on what happened that night were fully accurate. The students also found several inconsistencies in her account of the story as told to the police, at the trial and during their interview with her.

Another key finding was an injury that Watkins sustained before the crime. In their interviews with the prisoner’s family, they learned that Watkins was shot in the left arm in 2003, a year before the murder occurred. The injury left Watkins with permanent nerve damage near his elbow. But in Willis’s testimony, she claimed Watkins dragged her around the apartment by the collar while wielding a sawed-off shotgun in the other, which seems unlikely given the paralysis in his left arm.

Kim said upon learning of this injury, it became a top priority for the class to find out as much information about it as possible.

“The arm injury was never brought up in the trial,” she said. “It was such a huge thing that we focused on it a lot. I ended up taking a leadership role with that because I had background knowledge on the medical terminology.”

They found the date for the injury, and they were able to file requests with the police department and the hospital to access the records.

“The use of public records was tremendously important to the investigation,” Klein said. “That hard-nosed, shoe-leather journalism, and not taking no for an answer, we really got far along with that.”

Media attention

Outside the class, media attention on the Protess debacle intensified, as Medill and University officials met with faculty members to inform them of what they found during their investigation and accused Protess of misleading officials and misrepresenting facts.

Protess, for his part, had begun a separate venture called the Chicago Innocence Project. The “underground” class was initially comprised of six students who had worked with Protess in the past.

Klein and his students sought to avoid the distractions of the outside media attention, but it wasn’t always easy.

“At the beginning, the denizens of 26th (Street) and Cal (California Avenue), which is essentially the criminal justice community, were a bit leery of dealing with our class because of all the publicity,” Klein said. “By the end of the term, we had regained a lot of the trust in the community. They sa
w what we did, they read what we published and it was uniformly admired by those on 26th and Cal. It restored a lot of trust in what we do and how we do it.”

Kim said during their investigation, they wanted to talk to the two prosecutors from the case, who refused to talk to them.

“One of them said it had to do with everything that was going on with the Medill Innocence Project,” Kim said, “although I’m not sure he would have talked to us anyway.”

Both Takenaga and Kim said the students tried not to let the “outside distractions” affect their work, and they just wanted to focus on what was important.

Publishing the story

Klein decided at one point in the quarter that he wanted the students to write and publish a story based on the work they did throughout the course.

Throughout the class’s history, Klein said, students don’t typically publish an in-depth investigative story on the work they did in the past. On the Medill Innocence Project’s website, the pages on previous cases the project and the class had worked on shows short updates on the case written by Protess.

“With the mounting evidence that the students were gathering, we were in a position to write a powerful story,” Klein said. “We are investigative reporters, not just investigators, and as reporters, we publish stories. We have to make sure they’re 100 percent accurate and that we cover both sides of the story.”

In the last class, Klein, Serritella and the students met at Fisk at 3 p.m. and worked for more than eight hours to write the story. They had to order in dinner, and the end product was 10,000 word main story and a few sidebars on their investigation and the case.

“It was an amazing feeling to have all our hard work culminated with the long article that got a lot of media attention,” Takenaga said. “That eight-hour class, all the editing and fact checking, eventually paid off.”

The story, which is the culmination of the investigative work the students did throughout the 10-week course, details the case and the new evidence they found in their reporting.

“We started out with six students threatening to drop the class, and by the end, they had produced the most powerful investigative story I’ve seen done by students,” Klein said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say we made some history here.”

Changing the class

The story will be a new model for future Investigative Journalism classes, but the story was not the only thing he sought to change for the class, Klein said.

“I wanted to set a new paradigm for this class and create a lot of transparency,” Klein said.

Klein said he required students to post all of the public documents they acquired throughout the investigation – including court, medical, police and prison records – so that readers could look at the primary source documents on their own. He also created a secure website where students can upload their documents and memos.

It was a lot of work to scan and upload the documents, but it ultimately ended up helping in the writing process because they were able to search through the documents fairly easily, streamlining the fact checking process.

“It had never been done in this class,” Klein said. “Everything used to be gathered in paper form. It made a huge difference in doing this ultimately.”

He said he also removed unnamed sources in their 10,000-word story and asked students to write a sidebar on how they came across the information they found.

“All of these things were intended to create as much transparency as possible,” Klein said. “When you publish something for public consumption, it’s different than writing it for class. There is much more room for error, especially in an investigation about a murder, and you better have your facts right. You better have done your work carefully.”

Moving forward

For the students in the class, they will carry with them the life-changing experience from those 10 weeks even as they leave NU.

Takenaga said she highly recommends the class as it’s the best class she has taken not only in Medill, but at Northwestern.

“I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of doing,” she said.

Kim said the best part was the knowledge that she was working on something “real.”

“You’re not getting reaction stories that only a professor would read,” Kim said. “The reporting you’re doing is actually affecting real people. What you’re doing has an actual impact on someone’s life.”

Since the story’s publication, Klein said he has not heard from police or prosecutors about the case. Watkins is currently in between lawyers, but he plans on filing another appeal, Klein said.

“I would like to hear from prosecutors and police about what they think about our findings,” Klein said. “Their silence is deafening.”

He said he plans on continuing working on this case, along with others, with his students in the fall. Klein plans on using the model he used in spring’s class – including the big story at the end of the quarter and the use of an online database to keep track of all the student documents.

“The aim of the class remains the same,” Klein said. “We’re investigating murder cases. But it was important to me this spring that we use contemporary journalistic standards in the class, and we will continue to do that.”

He said in mapping out the class, he used his experience as an investigative journalist at The Washington Post, a position he left in 2008.

“I learned from those investigations I used to do,” Klein said. “In the pursuit and investigation of murder cases, I want to make sure we do it at the highest journalistic and ethical standards, and ensuring, as much as possible, the safety of our students, especially in doing investigations in tough neighborhoods.”

There are eight students currently enrolled in the fall class, and Klein said for those interested in taking the class in the future, he encourages them to read over the story on Watkins’s case on the Medill Innocence Project website.

But he said he will always hold his first group of students to a higher bar than anyone else.

“They’re like my ‘untouchables,'” Klein said, referencing the 1987 movie. “They took a leap of faith by agreeing to take the class, and it was a truly remarkable investigation. It will be hard to match by any other group of students.”

He is, however, optimistic about the future, he said.

“This class is important to Medill, and it’s important to the faculty and to the University,” Klein said. “This had been a point of pride for the University for many years. I inherited a program that was under great scrutiny. We are in a rebuilding process. I couldn’t have asked for a better start.”

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