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Battle Gets Personal Between Prosecutor and Professor

Remember the subpoena Chicago's top prosecutor issued seeking records of students at Northwestern University's Medill journalism school? We reported on it in October, when Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez asked professor David Protess, director of The Medill Innocence Project, to turn over students' notes and recordings of witness interviews, as well as the students' grades and evaluations and e-mails they sent to each other.

The subpoenas attracted national attention and resulted in harsh criticism of Alvarez. No less than a retired federal circuit judge, H. Lee Sarokin, weighed in, writing in The Huffington Post that the move "warrants and deserves the Gestapo label." Now, a Chicago magazine article describes how the stand-off between Alvarez and Medill's Protess has become personal and questions Alvarez's motives in leaking to reporters an old memo about a 1996 case that "recounts scurrilous and unsubstantiated claims about the conduct of Protess and students."

The subpoenas were 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.

Alvarez maintains the subpoenas are necessary to ascertain the truth of evidence and testimony in McKinney's case. "I have a duty to seek out whatever evidence is out there, and that's what I'm doing," she told Chicago magazine writer Bryan Smith. Her office alleges that the Medill students may have paid a witness to recant, that other students flirted with witnesses to persuade them to make statements, and that students were so driven to get good grades that they twisted or suppressed evidence.

"I don't know why Professor Protess has decided to go on this national campaign -- creating this us-versus-them theory out there," Alvarez told Smith. But Protess insists it was Alvarez who picked the fight and who is making it personal. "The us-versus-them theory is unfortunate," Protess said to Smith, "but its source is Anita Alvarez's prosecutors ... We voluntarily gave them new evidence of a prisoner’s innocence [and] they slapped us with subpoenas."

Smith writes, "A case that was about whether a convicted man is innocent has morphed into an increasingly personal brawl between two heavyweights unwilling to back down -- with academics, prosecutors, freedom of the press advocates, and students hanging on the judge’s decision." And nearly lost in the rancor, he notes, is the man who has spent 30 years in prison for a conviction that now is in question.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 6, 2010 at 02:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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