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Nov 6, 2009

Advocacy against wrongful convictions, criminalizing mental illness, the death penalty, and other justice issues is under fire.  Free speech suffers when one works for justice for convicted persons.  I am glad Northwestern is fighting releasing information on the students who have no charges pending against them.  Why investigate the students?

Students who question murder convictions under investigation
By Nicole Lapin, CNN
November 6, 2009 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)

Prosecutors subpoenaed students' records, saying team's motive was good grades; Northwestern won't submit records; hearing scheduled for Tuesday

Editor's note: Nicole Lapin is an anchor and reporter based at the
CNN Headquarters in Atlanta. She graduated from Northwestern
University's Medill School of Journalism.

(CNN) -- It was two-and-a-half days before Illinois Gov. George Ryan
was to leave office in 2003. I sat in a crowded auditorium in
Northwestern University's Law School in Chicago, where Ryan was
expected to make a major announcement on capital punishment.

"Half, if you will, of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois have
been reversed for a new trial or for some re-sentencing." he said,
his voice tired but clear.

Wrongful convictions had been all over the papers around that time --
the Anthony Porter case, the Ford Heights Four, Rolando Cruz.

"How in God's name does that happen? In America, how does it happen?"
Ryan continued. "How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to
occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?"

On that day, the governor commuted the sentences of all death row
inmates in the state and credited an unlikely source for helping him
make his decision: Professor David Protess' undergraduate
Investigative Journalism class at Northwestern University's Medill

In the previous decade, Medill students had uncovered some of the
most high-profile wrongful convictions in the city. The class had
worked to secure the release of 11 innocent prisoners, five of whom
were scheduled to be executed.

As a wide-eyed journalism student at Northwestern, I remember feeling
proud of my classmates, proud of my school and proud of the
profession I was entering.

Today, six years later, Protess' class is far from the center of the
same praise. Presented with evidence in a new case, the state
attorney's office is questioning the motivations of the messenger --
the class itself.

The students have raised questions about the murder conviction of
Anthony McKinney. In response, the state attorney's office issued a
subpoena for the students' grades, grading criteria, expense reports,
syllabi and e-mail messages -- mine included.
Find out more about the Medill Innocence Project.

The year after Gov. Ryan's speech, I signed up for Protess' class. I
was assigned to the team working on McKinney's case, who was
convicted in 1978, when he was 18, for shooting a security guard in
Harvey, Illinois.

On the night of September 15, 1978, a white security guard named
Donald Lundahl was killed at close range by a shotgun blast while
sitting in his car.

Later that evening, a police officer noticed McKinney, an African-
American, running down the street. He was arrested.

McKinney had no violent criminal history and was not in possession of
a weapon. He was briefly released after telling police he was
watching the Muhammed Ali-Leon Spinx heavyweight championship fight
when the murder took place and was running from "gang-bangers" when
the officer saw him.

Authorities questioned another teenager, who told police that he saw
the murder, claiming he saw McKinney, from 50 yards away, say, "Your
money or your life," and shoot Lundahl.

McKinney was picked up again, and after a second lengthy
interrogation, he signed a confession, typed by police. During his
trial, he recanted the confession, and said it was coerced.

But based on officers' testimony and that of the teenager, McKinney
was convicted of murder.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but because he had no record,
McKinney was sentenced to life in prison. Had his sentence been
death, McKinney would have been executed long before the commutation
of death row cases in 2003. He would have been dead well before
Protess even took up his case.

Since Protess started the course in 1992, his classes have
investigated about 50 cases.

Although the ones that are chosen have major red flags, like lack of
physical evidence, not all convictions are found to be unjustified.

Of the 50, 11 led to exonerations. Two indicated solid evidence of
guilt. The rest are under review by the judiciary or were
inconclusive, Protess said.

Protess made clear to all of his classes that the coursework was
about pavement-hitting journalism, the process behind discovering the
truth -- guilt or innocence. I went into the class to learn that

During the two quarters I took the course, I lived the McKinney case.
My team and I spent nights and weekends doing things I never told my
family or friends because they wouldn't believe me. Some times it was
a matter of staking out a source's house or going to smoky, seedy
bars to fish for information on the decades-old case.

Those times, a professional private investigator and another team
member would be in the car listening for the words "winter wedding"
-- the "safe word" we were supposed say into the cell phones in our
pockets if something dangerous ever went down. (It never did.)

Unlike other Medill classes, this course was hands-on, gritty and
raw. I gained more practical skills in those months than in all of my
other college courses combined. The experience prepared me to do the
work I have done professionally and will continue to do throughout my

In our investigation, we reenacted the crime scene and determined it
was impossible to discern any words spoken or shouted from 50 yards

Later, we tracked down the then-teenage witness who said he saw
McKinney that night. The man recanted his testimony on videotape, and
told us police beat him.

We also found a fire department document that indicated the
paramedics were called to the police station during McKinney's
interrogation, raising the question of whether he was roughed up
during his interrogation as he said he was.

We interviewed the "gang-bangers" who chased him that night. They
acknowledged they chased him after the Ali fight because they were
angry he had damaged their car earlier.

Finally, we identified alternate suspects, one of whom stated on
videotape that he was there when the murder was committed -- and that
McKinney wasn't.

After I graduated, the investigation continued. Once Protess felt
there was enough evidence, after nine teams of student reporters had
worked on the case, the information was shared with the Center on
Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern's Law School and McKinney's
legal team.

The audio and videotaped interviews, affidavits and other on-the-
record interview transcripts we worked on also were presented to the
district attorney's office. Last year, the new evidence was submitted
to the Cook County Circuit Court in an effort to exonerate McKinney.

I am still haunted by the case. I am still haunted by my visit to see
McKinney in prison -- the gentle face of a man who still has hope
after so many years.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, Sally Daly, told me that
we, as students, were "conducting these interviews for a grade in
this class."

She went on to say the "request for the grades goes to explore any
possible bias, interest or motive."

The claim is that we, as students, were motivated to get witnesses to
play into a preconceived thesis of innocence in order to get good
grades. I think I speak for my fellow alums when I say this class was
never about grades.

It has always been about searching for truth and justice for people
whose cases didn't get due diligence from a bogged-down system. This
was about journalism in its purest and most passionate form.

For years, the class has been a check on the work of police and other
law enforcement officials. Protess has seen and dealt with his fair
share of heat for more than a decade, but never anything like this
attempt to investigate the investigator.

Northwestern is not complying with the request for documents. A court
hearing on November 10 will decide if the subpoena will stand. While
we were students at the time, we "took reporting to the Nth degree,"
as the dean of the school told The Chicago Tribune. We functioned as
journalists and should be protected by reporter's privilege laws.

About 50 similar programs across the country are watching to see what
precedent could be set if the state is entitled to these materials.
Will programs like Northwestern's continue if the volunteers are
worried about attorneys' fees to handle requests for documents?

Recently, Judge H. Lee Sarokin, the federal judge who famously freed
Ruben "Hurricane" Carter on a murder conviction that proved to be
unfounded, wrote in support of all former members of "Team McKinney."
"If a reporter hopes to win a Pulitzer or an investigator for the
defense hopes to obtain further business," he wrote, "how can those
motives possibly be relevant to the evidence obtained?"

The focus should be on the evidence, not grades. Student information
is irrelevant to Anthony McKinney's case. Being forced to hand over
private information will not only compromise the integrity of the
program, but create a chilling effect on free speech and
investigative reporting.

I recently went back and watched Gov. Ryan's speech on YouTube. I got
the same chill I did watching it in person that day. I can only hope
that a new generation of students has the opportunity to feel that, too.



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Mary Neal
, 5, 2 children
Atlanta, GA, USA
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