In Focus: While Medill rebuilds its investigative journalism program, shadow of damaged legacy still lingers

January 24, 2020

Anthony Porter had two days left to live.

He had been found guilty of murdering a young couple on the South Side of Chicago in 1982. Porter was set to be executed in September 1998.

Porter’s lawyers were able to get him a stay of execution from the Illinois Supreme Court, on the basis that Porter, who had a low IQ score, may not have comprehended that he was about to be executed.

Immediately after the stay was issued, David Protess, then an investigative reporting professor at the Medill School of Journalism, began investigating the case.

Porter was released in 1999, largely due to investigative reporting conducted by Protess and his students. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan later pardoned Porter.

Protess worked with a group of students on Porter’s case in a class that would later be known as the Medill Innocence Project and become one of Medill’s most renowned programs. Since the early 1990s, students have dug up evidence on potential wrongful convictions, and under Protess’ oversight, students’ work led to over a dozen exonerations.

“Students… did kick-ass reporting about the criminal justice system,” Protess said. “There is nothing more important than educating people who went out into the world to make a difference, to have socially responsible careers.”

But in the 20 years since the 1999 founding of the Medill Innocence Project, scandal has embroiled the investigative journalism program at Medill: Allegations of unethical reporting, a subpoena for students’ grades and notes and a lawsuit against the University and professor all arose involving cases Protess and students investigated. Most recently, the program came under fire after allegations of harassing and predatory behavior against former Medill Justice Project director Alec Klein came to light. He later voluntarily resigned.

The program has been rebranded twice, first in 2012 as the Medill Justice Project and most recently as the Medill Investigative Lab in Fall 2019.

Though the most recent shift wasn’t “entirely predicated” on Klein’s exit, Medill dean Charles Whitaker said his departure pushed Medill to “ask critical questions” about the school’s investigative journalism curriculum. Now, Medill faculty and administrators are seeking to broaden the program’s investigative scope, reshaping the mission of the Medill Investigative Lab to look beyond wrongful convictions.

Meanwhile, the program’s tumultuous history remains in the not-so-distant past, and Klein is writing a book about the aftermath of the allegations against him. In what became known as Medill’s #MeToo moment, 10 women signed a letter saying they had “experienced harassment or bullying at the hands of Alec Klein.”

Across Protess’ and Klein’s tenures, students said the program operated with little administrative oversight or checks and balances. Past students also said they felt pressured to produce investigations that would lead to exonerations on tight deadlines.

“There weren’t really rules,” said Jennifer Merritt (Medill ’98), who took Protess’ investigative journalism course as an undergraduate. “They were just guidelines… which is part of the problem that I think existed.”

Getting off the ground

Former Medill Prof. David Protess traced the program’s inception back to the early 1990s, though the official Medill Innocence Project launched in 1999. He began teaching at Northwestern in 1981.

Protess, who taught a traditional course on investigative reporting, was also a contributing editor at Chicago Lawyer magazine where he looked into potential wrongful convictions.

“It occurred to me, ‘Wow, students are not just good in class, but also in fieldwork,’” Protess said. “I could incorporate outside Medill reporting about wrongful convictions with the teaching of investigative reporting.”

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

In 1996, Protess’ students investigated the Ford Heights Four case, ultimately resulting in the high-profile exoneration of four men wrongfully convicted for a double homicide in 1978.

By then, the course “had become a wrongful convictions class,” Protess said. And when the Alphawood Foundation, a Chicago-based grant-making organization, offered to financially support the class’ work, the Medill Innocence Project grew exponentially.

“We were not flush, by any means,” Protess said. “We were a small innocence program, but it was enough to keep us going.”

‘Fame and a gotcha’

Even prior to its branding as the Medill Innocence Project, Merritt said it was challenging to enroll in Protess’ investigative journalism class.

“I remember getting there maybe an hour and a half before registration,” Merritt said. “Already three people were sitting there, waiting to get in.”

Merritt was one of about 20 who enrolled in Winter Quarter of 1998. Shortly after the class began, she started reporting on the case of Aaron Patterson and Eric Caine, co-defendants convicted in the 1986 murder of a Chicago couple.

Patterson was sentenced to death, and Caine was sentenced to life in prison. Working on the case, Merritt said she thought Protess “cared much more” about wrongful convictions for inmates on death row, like Patterson, than those who faced life in prison, like Caine.

Protess said in an email to The Daily that he “cared equally” about all prisoners, but “there was more immediacy to cases where prisoners were facing death.” That didn’t mean neglecting cases with life sentences like Caine’s, Protess said. The former professor said he referred Caine to a lawyer, for example, and shared evidence with that lawyer.

Patterson was pardoned and set free in 2003, but Caine remained in prison, serving 25 years of his life sentence. Merritt said she “repeatedly” reached out to Protess about Caine’s case. She even emailed former dean Loren Ghiglione calling Protess’ motivations into question, arguing investigative journalism at Medill shouldn’t be about “fame and a gotcha.” Merritt said she never received a reply.

Caine was released in 2011, due in large part to the work of students at the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project.

The year after Caine’s release from prison, he reached out to Merritt through his lawyer. Years later, Caine told Merritt that Protess never returned his mail, Merritt said.

Protess said he stayed in touch regularly with Caine while he was in prison, and they have remained close since his exoneration. He said he wishes there was more they could have done to expedite Caine’s release, but ultimately, it was “out of our hands.”

Fine ethical line

The Medill Innocence Project continued to pore over potential cases of wrongful convictions. Though not all their work found defendants to be innocent, Protess oversaw over a dozen exonerations in his time at Medill.

“(Protess) was the face of the University — not only Medill, but the damn University,” said Paul Ciolino, a former private investigator who worked with students in the program on certain cases.

The case of Anthony McKinney — who was convicted of killing a security guard in Harvey, Illinois, in 1978 — seemed worthy of investigation, but ultimately, the class’s work did not overturn the conviction. Protess’ students looked into the case from 2003 to 2006, making headway in 2004.

In that year, Evan Benn (Medill ’04) and other students investigating the case identified a potential alternative suspect named Anthony Drake. The students met the man in a park in downstate Illinois, where Drake confessed on video to being present when the security officer was killed, adding that McKinney wasn’t there.

Having secured Drake’s tape, Benn was “exuberant” and expected a swift release for McKinney. The result couldn’t have been further from that.

Court documents filed in 2009 stated Drake recanted his confession, saying the Medill Innocence Project paid him for his statement in the form of a cab ride.

After Benn graduated, lawyers from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office came to Miami to meet with Benn, who then was working at the Miami Herald, to interview him about the McKinney case. At the time, he still thought the attorneys were working to release McKinney.

However, in May 2009, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office — then led by Anita Alvarez — subpoenaed the students’ notes, emails, grades, voice memos and videos, among other items. Alvarez also accused Protess and students in the Medill Innocence Project of unethical reporting tactics, including bribing witnesses and flirting with them for information.

Benn thought Alvarez was tired of being embarrassed by the Medill Innocence Project and decided to “put her foot down” and derail them. The accusations that students bribed witnesses or flirted with them were “patently false,” he said. Protess also said there was not a “single circumstance” where students bribed a source.

Benn — who has continued to stay in touch with his former instructor — said Protess’ first concern over the subpoena could hinder the Medill Innocence Project’s pending cases.

McKinney died in prison in 2013.

Alvarez, who now works for a consulting firm, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Over the course of his time teaching investigative reporting, Protess faced other allegations of “questionably ethical reporting tactics” including an incident where a student posed as a worker from ComEd, an electric utility company.

Protess defended the student’s use of undercover reporting as part of a “long tradition” in investigative reporting used to identify the whereabouts of a source.

Protess said he discussed ethical decision-making in class before sending students into the field, in accordance with the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Even Merritt, who disapproved of Protess’ handling of the Patterson and Caine case, said Protess never suggested any unethical reporting tactics.

“As much as I disagree with (Protess) . . . I never had seen him as someone lacking ethics,” Merritt said.

Turning tides of the University

At first, in handling the 2009 subpoena, the University put “a lot of money and moral commitment into making that fight,” defending its students and Protess by claiming protection under reporter’s privilege, Protess said.

Alvarez argued the Medill Innocence Project had provided evidence supporting McKinney’s innocence only to his defense attorneys and not to the state prosecutors, contending they had acted as attorneys instead of as journalists.

Protess said they had shared evidence with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, assuming the prosecutors would obtain the evidence on discovery through a routine subpoena. It was “unprecedented,” he said, for prosecutors to go after student journalists, requesting their grades and memos.

After further review, the University’s stance shifted. In an April 2011 news release, then University spokesperson Al Cubbage (Medill ’78, ’87) said Protess “knowingly misrepresented the facts” and “caused the University to take on what turned out to be an unsupportable case.”

“They were accusing me of something that was pretty terrible,” Protess said, “that I was lying and misleading my University that I loved and still love and am loyal to.”

Protess said there was, however, a single valid claim alleged against him: He altered an email regarding who had access to memos before forwarding it to the University’s lawyers, having been instructed not to include false information, but he didn’t tell them it was altered.

“I wasn’t trying to deceive anybody. I fucked up,” Protess said. “I feel badly about it to this day.”

He retired from Northwestern in August 2011.

Another legal battle

Even after his departure, there was another skeleton in Protess’ closet: the Porter case.

Ciolino, the former private investigator who worked with Protess on some cases, confronted alternative suspect Alstory Simon in 1999 in Milwaukee and filmed Simon’s confession to killing the Chicago couple Porter had been convicted of murdering.

Simon was sentenced to 37 years in prison, but the Cook County Circuit Court vacated Simon’s convictions after he served 15 years. Simon recanted his confession and claimed he had been coerced by Ciolino.

Ciolino said Simon made eight more written confessions after the initial confrontation in 1999.

“There was no interrogation,” Ciolino said. “There was no threat, there was no animosity, there was no raised voices.”

In February 2015, Simon filed a $40 million lawsuit against Northwestern, Protess and Ciolino, among others, seeking redress for his time in prison.

“Simon was writing letters from jail, thanking (Protess), thanking me, telling me I treated him well,” Ciolino said. “Does that sound like a guy that I stuck a gun in his ear and made him confess to something he didn’t do?”

The suit was settled in June 2018, but Ciolino continues to fight back.

He filed a defamation countersuit at the federal level that was dismissed in 2017. He then filed a second suit at the state level. While the circuit court dismissed the case for failing to meet the statute of limitations, an Illinois appeals court reversed the decision last week, sending it back to trial court.

“The only thing that’s going to stop me is when I’m dead,” Ciolino said. “I’m not quitting.”

New leadership

Following an announcement from the University that Protess would not be teaching investigative journalism in Spring Quarter 2011, he took a leave of absence and went on to found the Chicago Innocence Project, continuing to work on wrongful convictions. Medill Prof. Alec Klein took over the investigative journalism class, having taught business reporting and investigative reporting at the University for about three years.

Klein, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, made the program his own. A trademark dispute over the term “innocence project” provided an opportunity for a rebrand, and the program was renamed the Medill Justice Project in December 2012.

“I just wanted to try to help and keep (the project) going because it was so important,” Klein told The Daily, “given the fact that there is actually quite a bit of suffering that goes on all over the country and in the world among those who have been wrongfully accused and wrongfully convicted.”

The program still investigated potential wrongful convictions, including shaken-baby syndrome cases, where serious brain injury results from shaking an infant or toddler. Klein said he began looking into them after talking with a lawyer about it at a conference. The cases are challenging to investigate, Klein said, because there are often minimal witnesses and evidence.

Similar to its predecessor, the Medill Justice Project became a selling point for the University. Kara Stevick (Medill ’19), a former student in the program, said she noticed the University using it to recruit new students, including advertising it to the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute for high schoolers.

The Medill Justice Project relied on outside donors, whom Stevick understood to be the program’s “primary” source of funding. Stevick remembered speaking to donors at a lunch, updating them on the status of cases and encouraging them to continue donating.

Whitaker said the Medill Justice Project, as well as the new Medill Investigative Lab, was funded by several alumni donors as a part of his new fundraising strategy.

Stevick said she sensed a tension between Medill’s administration and Klein because the program operated outside of Medill’s supervision but still was integrated under the school. While that “free rein” often allowed for investigative breakthroughs, Stevick said she believed it was likely “part of the problem.”

Klein said the school’s administration was “very supportive, but it was mostly hands-off” of the Medill Justice Project’s work.

‘Whisper network’

Growing up watching Dateline, investigative journalism had always piqued Hayley Miller’s (Medill ’19) interest.

Miller took the Medill Justice Project course Fall Quarter 2017 — the quarter before 10 women accused Klein of “harassing” and “predatory” behavior in “Medill’s #MeToo moment.” She said she “thankfully … was never faced with anything that crossed the line.” Still, she did hear a “couple of rumors” about the program’s director even before applying.

“Particularly as a woman, you never want to be in a position where you feel like you can’t get the education that you want because you’re scared of something,” Miller said. “So I just made a conscious decision that it was worth it for me to learn.”

In February 2018, 10 women sent a letter listing their allegations against Klein to Northwestern administrators. Their allegations included Klein’s “controlling, discriminatory, emotionally and verbally abusive behavior,” as well as his attempts to kiss a then-prospective female employee and talking about his sex life, among other accusations. More than a month later, 19 additional women reached out to the Medill Me Too group with their own experiences.

One woman, who remained anonymous like many of the letter’s authors, wrote to the Medill Me Too group in 2018 that Klein’s behavior made her feel “so horribly uncomfortable” that she skipped Medill’s graduation ceremony so she wouldn’t have to see him.

“I thought I was the only one,” the woman wrote. “When I stopped working for him, I accepted the futility of pursuing a journalism career. For three years I was afraid to even enter Fisk (Hall), to speak with other professors about recommendations or finding a new advisor, terrified I might run into (Klein).”

Multiple women who authored the letter did not wish to comment for this story.

Some of the allegations referred to 2015, when an administrative assistant who worked for the Medill Justice Project accused Klein of harassment after she left the position. A University investigation did not find sufficient evidence to support the woman’s allegations in 2015. The matter was settled and made confidential because Klein, who was a tenured professor, said the University “didn’t want it to be used against me.”

Samantha Max (Medill ’18), who interned for the Medill Justice Project in the summer of 2017, said she remembered the day the Medill Me Too letter was published. She said she was “blindsided” when she heard about the “whisper network” that she “had not been tuned into.”

“It’s one thing to read all of these #MeToo stories that I had been following in The New Yorker, New York Times and all these national outlets,” Max said. “But then to see one that literally hit so close to home made me question and think back on everything.”

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

There is a non-disclosure agreement on the University’s findings in the investigation into Klein, Whitaker told The Daily. But Whitaker said Klein “was presented with the findings and chose to resign.”

Klein told The Daily he was never sanctioned by the University and resigned because the situation was taking a “huge toll” on his family. He said his portrayal in the media is “far from the truth.”

Klein is writing an autobiographical book about the experience, slated to be released later this year. The book isn’t a defense of himself, Klein said, but rather tries to find “goodness” from his own experience.

“I’m a flawed and imperfect person. And I’m sorry for whatever anybody may feel towards me,” Klein said. “I’ve done a lot of soul searching to try to find a different way of doing things and approaching things.”

When Klein’s book deal was made public in September, it sparked a backlash, with some taking to Twitter in response.

“Men don’t get cancelled,” Natalie Escobar (Medill ‘18) wrote on Twitter. “They get book deals.”

Program in limbo

Klein took a leave of absence in February 2018. Medill Profs. Patti Wolter and Peter Slevin took over for the rest of Winter Quarter, picking up a case about halfway through the term.

Though it was “dramatic on all fronts,” Wolter said she gives the students a “huge amount of credit” for their maturity and commitment to the work. Medill decided to continue the class in Klein’s absence, and the students published a 3,500-word story in the Los Angeles Times.

Even though Slevin said the allegations detailed in the two letters were “unforgivable,” he added that Klein’s departure “presented a great opportunity” for the University to expand its investigative efforts.

The Medill Justice Project continued for Spring Quarter 2018, with Medill senior associate dean Tim Franklin, Prof. Desiree Hanford and George Papajohn of The Chicago Tribune instructing. Allisha Azlan, a member of the Medill Justice Project office who had worked with the program under Klein, also joined them.

Hanford and Papajohn continued instructing the course in the fall, after Klein voluntarily resigned from the University in August 2018.

Hanford and Medill Prof. Yukari Iwatani Kane taught the course in Winter Quarter 2019, with Kane continuing into the spring.

“We all brought different strengths to the table,” Hanford said. “It seemed like a good approach to take.”

A new era

With the introduction of the Medill Investigative Lab in Fall Quarter 2019, Whitaker thought investigative journalism could take on a broader scope.

While focusing on wrongful convictions was a “worthwhile enterprise,” Whitaker said much of Medill’s investigative work was “rather narrow.”

“There was a whole world of investigative reporting that we weren’t paying much attention to,” he said.

In its inaugural class, the Medill Investigative Lab offered project-based investigative reporting. Joining Hanford to instruct the course was Debbie Cenziper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who writes for the Washington Post and became Medill’s director of investigative reporting in September.

Rather than focusing on potential wrongful convictions, the Medill Investigative Lab will examine social justice issues more broadly, Cenziper said.

“It gives us an opportunity to fill a need in journalism,” she said. “It gives us an opportunity to write stories that impact more people, especially people who live in marginalized or disenfranchised communities.”

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

Cenziper and Whitaker are also working to make the investigative journalism curriculum at Medill more robust by offering additional classes.

The lab will eventually be expanded into a 20-week course, giving students the opportunity to spend one quarter in Evanston and one quarter in Washington D.C., though details about how the program will work with students’ Journalism Residencies — a quarter-long professional internship program — and other scheduling particulars are still up in the air.

“It takes three passes for any class to really be cemented and sort of figure out what it’s going to be,” Whitaker said.

Right now, changes are still being made to the course offerings. In the meantime, students have continued seeking investigative journalism opportunities. Although students applied to the Medill Investigative Lab for Winter Quarter, they are now enrolled in Intro to Investigative Reporting. Students in the fall Medill Investigative Lab reported and traveled as a team, as the former program traditionally did, but students in the Winter Quarter class are reporting individual stories.

Still, Hanford said the class has to move forward, despite being aware of what happened under Klein and Protess.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put that kind of pressure on anyone,” Hanford said. “Whether it’s the faculty or the students, it’s like an Etch A Sketch every quarter: You shake the sketch, and you start over.”