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State's Attorney Actions Against Medill Called 'Overreaching'

October 27, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- The Cook County State's Attorney has made national headlines with its issue of a subpoena asking for class grades, e-mail communications, off-the-record interview notes and grading criteria of students who worked on a Northwestern University Medill Innocence Project case.

"The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act doesn't even permit me to give students' grades to their parents much less to prosecutors," said John Lavine, dean of the Medill School of Journalism. "And I would not give out that information if I could. We won't have our students thinking otherwise."

The subpoena is "overkill" and "overreaching," according to an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which reported on the case last week. The newspaper urged Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to "quash the subpoena."

Lavine said the actions of the state's attorney's office could have "chilling effects" on people or groups that want to bring forth information establishing a person's innocence. "It indicates that prosecutors are more likely to check you out than the information you are trying to provide to them."

A hearing on the request for the class-related materials is set for Nov. 10. The Cook County State's Attorney maintains that the students did not act as reporters and, as such, are not protected by the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act. Lavine called the students' work "reporting to the nth degree," adding that Medill students have been writing news stories for the professional media for decades from newsrooms in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Northwestern Professor David Protess, his investigative journalism students and the Medill Innocence Project he directs have won international acclaim for their award-winning efforts in freeing 11 wrongfully convicted men from prison -- five of them on death row.

In the newly released six-volume "Encyclopedia of Journalism" (SAGE, 2009), Protess is listed -- with Edward R. Murrow, Jessica Mitford, Robert Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh -- as one of 30 outstanding investigative reporters since World War I.

Despite this record, the Cook County State's Attorney has suggested that the desire for a good grade may have biased Protess' students in a case they are championing on behalf of Andrew McKinney. McKinney has been in prison for more than 30 years for the 1978 shooting death of a security guard. After three years of investigative work, the students became convinced of his innocence.

"The prosecutor's job is not to cast stones against the work the students did," Medill's Lavine told Time magazine. "It's their job to go see the same witnesses, use the students' information and verify it themselves." The students' investigative findings were made available to the state's attorney and are publicly available on the Medill Innocence Project's web site.

The students shared their investigative findings in 2006 with Northwestern School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions. The center sought to vacate McKinney's conviction or get a new trial. A judge has granted a hearing on the new evidence presented by the center, but the hearing cannot be scheduled until the subpoena issue is resolved.

Topics: University News