Northwestern University student group under fire from prosecutors

Medill Innocence Project has overturned 11 wrongful convictions since 1999

Over the past 10 years, students at Northwestern University have gotten hands-on experience in investigative journalism by dissecting the work of prosecutors and police in old crimes.

The Medill Innocence Project, led by professor David Protess, has helped to overturn 11 wrongful convictions. Their work led to former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s decision to place a moratorium on the state’s death penalty in 2003.

Now, the tables have turned.

Cook County prosecutors from the Anthony McKinney murder case — a crime that Northwestern students have been investigating since the fall of 2003 — ordered a subpoena demanding Protess and the Medill School of Journalism surrender the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and personal e-mail messages of journalism students who worked on the case.

A circuit court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Nine teams of student reporters over the course of three years researched the McKinney case.

In September 1978, McKinney was convicted of killing security guard Donald Lundahl with a shotgun in Harvey, a southern suburb of Chicago. McKinney — now incarcerated and facing life in prison— has maintained his innocence ever since.

McKinney’s younger brother Michael brought the case to the attention of Protess’s investigative journalism class and asked them to research it.

By tracking down and interviewing eyewitnesses, collecting an affidavit and fact-checking police reports, students collected enough evidence to hand over to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic in 2006.

Last year, the law school filed a petition on behalf of McKinney for a hearing in Cook County Circuit Court — a move the state’s attorney supported.

The prosecutors said they want to understand through the information released by the subpoenas whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate McKinney.

However, others believe the prosecutors’ intentions lie elsewhere.

“I really think this has nothing to do with the case itself directly,” said William Thorn, chair of Marquette’s journalism department. “The prosecutors have no evidence that this is in any way significant. It’s a classic technique for prosecutors to see if they can find something to reduce journalists’ credit … a fishing expedition. They are doing this to intimidate.”

Northwestern is fighting the subpoenas, and has filed a motion to quash them, or render them illegitimate.

“We are arguing that the subpoena is overly broad and not relevant to the issues at hand,” said Rebekah Wanger, program assistant for the Medill Innocence Project. “Why should it matter what our students’ mentality was? We search for the highest truth. Students got good grades based on their research.”

Wanger also said the students should be protected by the Illinois shield laws that keep the sources and newsgathering materials of journalists confidential, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, better known as FERPA, which protects the privacy of student education records.

Nonetheless, in response to Northwestern’s motion to quash the subpoenas, prosecutors argue that Protess and his students aren’t journalists, so they aren’t protected by reporters’ privilege laws.

Erik Ugland, an assistant professor in Marquette’s College of Communication who teaches media law, believes the students meet the requirements under the shield law.

“The biggest challenge (for Northwestern) will be to convince the judge that the Innocence Project Web site is a news medium,” Ugland said.

Without a legitimate news medium, journalists cannot be guaranteed protection under the shield laws, he said.

The subpoenas could impair the Innocence Project’s ability to get witnesses to cooperate in the future, Ugland said.

“It creates a disincentive for sources to reveal what they know if reporters can’t guarantee that their confidentiality will be protected,” he said.

Not only would the Project be threatened, but Wanger said the general credibility of journalists would also be in jeopardy.

“There would be a general chilling effect on every journalist and even citizen journalists,” Wanger said. “It’s a slippery slope.”