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Prosecutor Defends Subpoena to Students

Call this course, "Introduction to Overreaching." But it is not one students at Northwestern University's Medill journalism school willingly signed up for. The state's attorney in Cook County, Ill., has issued a subpoena asking Northwestern to turn over a variety of student records, including grades and performance evaluations, after the students uncovered evidence they say proves the innocence of a man who has spent three decades in prison for murder.

Anita Alvarez

Yesterday, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (pictured) defended the issuance of the subpoena, which was reported Monday by the Chicago Tribune. "If you're going to put yourself into the role of an investigator, then you need to turn over whatever your notes are," Alvarez said. The subpoena asks for the students' notes and recordings of witness interviews, as well as the students' grades and evaluations, the class syllabus and e-mails they sent to each other and to their professor.

The students and their professor, David Protess, director of The Medill Innocence Project, are fighting the subpoena and have retained two Sidley Austin lawyers to represent them, Richard J. O'Brien and Linda R. Friedlieb. They say they are protected under the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act.

All of this is an outgrowth of an investigation the journalism students started in 2003 into the conviction of Anthony McKinney for the 1978 murder of security guard Donald Lundahl in the Chicago suburb of Harvey. After three years of reporting, the students became convinced that McKinney was innocent. They shared their findings with law students at Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, who filed a petition on McKinney's behalf to vacate his conviction.

With that petition docketed to be heard in Cook County Circuit Court, the state's attorney issued its surprising and seemingly overbroad subpoena. Don Craven, the acting executive director of the Illinois Press Association, told the Chicago Tribune that he considers the subpoena harassment at best and at worst an attempt to discredit the Innocence Project's work. "They're either trying to undermine the investigation, or they're trying to undermine the entire project," he said.

The students' motion to quash the subpoena is scheduled to be argued before a Circuit Court judge Nov. 10. They have turned over some of the requested documents involving interviews with witnesses, which they had previously published online. But they object to providing grades, receipts and other documents as irrelevant and, in any event, protected by the state's reporter shield law.

But Alvarez maintains that even the students' grades should be produced. "All information is relevant," she told news reporters. "There are more notes that have not been turned over. We want to make sure cases are secure and that we don't have the wrong person convicted."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 21, 2009 at 01:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)


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