For the first time since the Medill Innocence Project was founded at Northwestern in 1999, the program underwent a name change.
Medill Justice Project director Alec Klein said today the December change of the program’s title was primarily a trademark issue, with no planned change in program goals or activities.
The national Innocence Project network owns the “Innocence Project” trademark. Klein said after a recent national decision to make the network exclusive to legal clinics, which make up the majority of Innocence Project sites, the NU site was excluded from the broader organization.
Klein emphasized the split was amicable, and the Justice Project and Innocence Project network would continue to share information and resources.
A desire to break from controversies of the past was also a factor, he said.
Under former director David Protess, a third-party lawyer subpoenaed information for his students’ work, which alumni of the program and other supporters protested. The University eventually released the subpoenaed documents. Protess left the Medill Innocence Project after the subpoena and formed the Chicago Innocence Project, which operates independent of NU.
“There was concern that the students were acting as advocates under the way it worked before,” Klein said. “When I took over, I made sure it was clear that wouldn’t happen.”
Klein said he had been considering a name change for about a year, and the trademark issue gave him a reason to act.
“When students would go out into the field, some peoples’ reaction was, ‘Well, are you saying the person is innocent?’” he said. “The new name is more representative of the fact that we’re a journalistic organization.”
— Rafi Letzter