Monday, January 11, 2010

Prosecutor Turns On Crusading Journalism School

From NPR:

Northwestern University professor David Protess has made life hard for Illinois prosecutors for decades, as he's routinely and often successfully challenged the evidence for their convictions of murder defendants.

Protess' Medill Innocence Project has been credited with helping to exonerate and free 11 men unjustly convicted of murder.

Now, the chief prosecutor for the Chicago region is turning the tables. She is demanding unusual evidence of her own from the professor and his students: their grades, e-mails, notes and course evaluations from a project in which they're championing the cause of yet another murder convict.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez says her office has evidence his students' research is skewed. On Monday, a hearing is scheduled in which lawyers for Protess and Northwestern will submit arguments for why they shouldn't have to comply.

Protess' Take

"Legally, what I take from it is that the prosecutors are on a fishing expedition," Protess says while eating in one of his favorite restaurants in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. "Practically, I think they have an interest in paying back for years of embarrassment — and paying forward to deter us."

Protess, now 63, got his start in the legendary world of Chicago journalism with undercover exposés of corruption. One of them was the legendary and controversial Mirage Bar story, in which he helped the Chicago Sun-Times buy and run a bar in North Chicago and recorded city building inspectors demanding bribes.

Since the early 1980s, however, Protess has also been training students at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism by having them re-report murder convictions where claims of innocence seem plausible.

"They bring a fresh perspective to an old case — they bring an energy and zeal — and they're disarming interviewers," Protess says. "When they knock on someone's door — [people] don't see someone like me standing there, they see some young idealistic college kids who want to find the truth. And often, that's the first step toward getting it."

Freeing The Wrongly Convicted

Take the Ford Heights Four. Four black youths from the housing projects were arrested and convicted of abduction, rape and murder in the killing of a young white couple on Chicago's South Side in 1978.

Over several months in the mid-1990s, students turned up evidence that police had intimidated a key witness and prosecutors had buried another eyewitness account that implicated four other men.

A disclosure: one of those Northwestern students is now my colleague, NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan.

Protess' students even got a confession from one of the people involved in the killing. Among those freed was Kenneth Adams — who had served 18 years in prison. He shared in a $36 million settlement for wrongful imprisonment.

Adams now lives in an affluent development south of Chicago. Even now, 14 years later, Adams says he often gets up at night to stare at the stars or wander around to make sure he is not constrained by a prison cell the size of a small bathroom.

Five times Adams was offered the chance to walk free as long as he testified against his equally innocent co-defendants, and five times he refused. It is not an ordeal Adams enjoys reliving — but he does it, he says, in order to defend the professor.

"Without them stepping in and doing what they did, what chance would we have had?" Adams said as he sat in his spacious living room. His wife, Norma, stood nearby. "How much evidence would not have been uncovered? How many witnesses would not have been questioned and you get the truth about it?"

Protess' students' actions, Adams said, also put pressure on the state of Illinois to allow for DNA testing.

Full article here.

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