Quash the press

Sunday, November 1, 2009

ANITA ALVAREZ, the state's attorney in Cook County, Ill., has slapped student journalists at the Medill Innocence Project with subpoenas to get them to hand over additional information from their investigation of the incarceration of an Illinois man for the past 31 years. But she's not just asking for notes from off-the-record or unpublished interviews. She also want the class syllabus; grades and e-mail communications of the students; and reimbursement records for their travel expenses. These subpoenas -- and the stunning overreach they represent -- should be quashed.

The journalist-prosecutor battle centers around the case of Anthony McKinney. On Sept. 15, 1978, a security guard was shot while sitting in his car in Harvey, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Police questioned Mr. McKinney after they saw him running near the crime scene. He was released but hauled in again when another teenager claimed that the 18-year-old was the triggerman. Mr. McKinney signed a confession after a lengthy interrogation.

The Medill Innocence Project looked into the matter at the behest of Mr. McKinney's brother in 2003. Over the next three years, nine teams of student journalists under the direction of Professor David Protess interviewed witnesses and followed leads. They tracked down a man who had confessed his involvement in the crime to neighborhood residents interviewed by the Medill reporters. He provided a videotaped statement that he was at the murder scene with two other men he claimed were responsible and that Mr. McKinney wasn't there. The team found the accused. One denied it. The other refused to talk.

All of the on-the-record interviews and videotapes were given to both the prosecutors and Mr. McKinney's defense attorneys in 2006. Mr. Protess posted the findings on the Medill Innocence Project's Web site in 2008. The prosecution agreed to a post-conviction hearing for Mr. McKinney. But instead of focusing on the credibility of the witnesses and the information they've brought forth, Ms. Alvarez is questioning the motivation of the student journalists. She has asked for their grades, journals and notes to discover whether they fabricated evidence to get good grades.

The Medill Innocence Project is housed within the venerable Medill Journalism School at Northwestern University, outside Chicago. "From day one, students learn that truth is our ultimate goal -- not exoneration," Mr. Protess told us. Since the project started in 1999 the project has helped free 11 men. Then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan cited the students' work when he stopped all executions in Illinois in 2000. In 2003, he granted clemency to everyone on death row. With that track record -- and what it says about the work of prosecutors -- the action taken by Ms. Alvarez smacks of overreach and pique.

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