Prosecutors Investigate Innocence Project Students
A rather bizarre case in Illinois — even by the standards of that state.
For more than a decade, classes of students at Northwestern University’s journalism school have been scrutinizing the work of prosecutors and the police. The investigations into old crimes, as part of the Medill Innocence Project, have helped lead to the release of 11 inmates, the project’s director says, and an Illinois governor once cited those wrongful convictions as he announced he was commuting the sentences of everyone on death row.
But as the Medill Innocence Project is raising concerns about another case, that of a man convicted in a murder 31 years ago, a hearing has been scheduled next month in Cook County Circuit Court on an unusual request: Local prosecutors have subpoenaed the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students themselves. The prosecutors, it seems, wish to scrutinize the methods of the students this time. The university is fighting the subpoenas.
Lawyers in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office say that in their quest for justice in the old case, they need every pertinent piece of information about the students’ three-year investigation into Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a security guard in 1978. Mr. McKinney’s conviction is being reviewed by a judge. Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.
A spokeswoman for Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney, who was elected last fall, said the prosecutors were simply trying to get to the bottom of the McKinney case. “At the end of the day, all we’re seeking is the same thing these students are: justice and truth,” said Sally Daly, the spokeswoman. She said the prosecutors wished to see all statements the students received from witnesses, whether they supported or contradicted the notion of Mr. McKinney’s innocence. “We’re not trying to delve into areas of privacy or grades,” Ms. Daly said. “Our position is that they’ve engaged in an investigative process, and without any hostility, we’re seeking to get all of the information they’ve developed, just as detectives and investigators turn over.”
Well, no. Without probable cause to believe criminal action on part of the students, the state has no right to any of this material. And why would it matter if the students thought they would get better grades for getting provocative statements? Surely, people aren’t going to confess to crimes or commit otherwise commit perjury in order to help out some rich college students they don’t know.
On this matter, there seems to be wide consensus.
American University conlaw prof Darren Lenard Hutchinson:
The subpoena raises several red flags. First, the information the prosecutors seek is completely unrelated to the question of McKinney’s guilt or innocence. Second, student grades are normally protected from disclosure by federal law. Third, the program is operated by the school of journalism and likely qualifies for protection by state journalism shield laws and the First Amendment. Fourth, the professor’s course materials are possibly protected from disclosure by the concept of academic freedom — which the Supreme Court has construed as a value secured by the First Amendment.
Daly also likens the subpoena to the routine disclosure of information by “detectives.” Police detectives, however, work for the government and assist the prosecution. They are colleagues. Although private detectives do not work for the government, they have an unambiguous financial stake in the outcome of their investigation. The students, by contrast, are private citizens and journalists. The Medill project exists to monitor and improve the criminal justice system — not to service the prosecutor’s office or inmates.
Illinois prosecutors are blatantly using the strong arm of the state to harass Medill journalism students. The prosecutors’ behavior evinces a deep contempt for the law, which makes the students’ efforts to uncover wrongful convictions even more compelling.
The Cook County prosecutors cite no evidence to support a credible belief there is anything nefarious behind the student journalists’ work. The students work, conclusions and supporting materials are all part of their project report. The prosecutors already have access to all of said pertinent material, as well they should. But what they now want are “grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students”. Here is the actual subpoena. This is information that has nothing whatsoever to do with the students work on the project. “Fishing expedition” would be far too kind of a term.
The only visible purpose of the play by the prosecutors here is intimidation and instillation of a deep chill in the work of the Medill Innocence Project.
Retired federal judge H. Lee Sarokin:
I am always offended and annoyed with the labeling of some recent conduct or person with Nazism or Hitler or drawing analogies with the Holocaust and thereby belittling those horrific events in our history with some current less appalling and even minor occurrences. But I truly believe that the attempt of prosecutors to subpoena “the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of their journalism students themselves” at Northwestern University warrants and deserves the Gestapo label.
It is a flagrant attempt to intimidate the Medill Innocence Project and other similar projects which have been so successful in overturning wrongful convictions. The alleged justification is that the prosecutors want to determine “whether students believed that they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.” So I take it that would mean that every time a detective obtained incriminating evidence, his entire background could be examined in order to determine his motives when interviewing a witness; whether he had received or expected a raise or a promotion; and if so whether he needed money; how much his debt was; what he was paying for rent and alimony, etc. In other words, the scope of the investigation would be extended to the motives of the investigator rather than the witness being investigated and interrogated.
Wisconsin lawprof Ann Althouse asks “what information about students and classes should it be able to look at?” She does not attempt to answer the question. Her commentators give it a shot.
Tennessee lawprof Glenn Reynolds, aka InstaPundit, snarks, “Hey, it’s the Chicago Way. But the parallel is pretty striking — if you don’t like what they’re reporting, why, then, they’re not really journalists!“