A group of Northwestern University journalism students who believe they found proof that exonerates a man held behind bars for 31 years are fighting a request from the Illinois state prosecutor's office that they turn over their grades and course materials as part of its investigation into the possible wrongful conviction, arguing that it would jeopardize future investigations.
The university's lawyer, Richard O'Brien, told ABCNews.com the Cook County's prosecutor's office is wrongly focusing its attention on the academic history of the students working for the Medill School of Journalism Innocence Project and not enough on the case of Anthony McKinney, who the students believe was convicted and incarcerated for a murder and armed robbery he did not commit.
"The prosecution is saying that maybe the grades of the students were skewed in a way to incentivize them to try and find evidence of innocence," O'Brien told ABCNews.com. "That's obviously not that case, and we don't believe it is material to the question of whether McKinney is innocent."
The Innocence Project at Northwestern, led by journalism professor David Protess, was founded in 1999 and uses the work of undergraduate journalism students to investigate cases of people suspected of being wrongly convicted. Since its inception, the project has freed 11 men, five of whom were sitting on death row.
The college program has had a large impact on Illinois' use of the death penalty. In January 2000, during a speech in which he enacted a state moratorium on the death penalty, Illinois Gov. George Ryan referenced the Northwestern students' efforts in helping to exonerate death row inmate Anthony Porter in 1999. Ryan later commuted the sentences of all 167 of Illinois' death row prisoners, citing concerns about errors in the process and again citing the work of Protess and his students.
Now, the school worries that turning the legal microscope on the students could deter future students from participating in the Innocence Project.
"We've uncovered 11 instances of wrong convictions -- we ought to be applauded by the state, but instead we're constantly being put under a microscope," O'Brien said.
Students from the Innocence Project began researching McKinney's case in 2003 on the advice of his younger brother, Michael McKinney.
Three years later and with the help of 30 students, the group was certain that it was not McKinney, then just 16 years old, but two other men who were responsible for the 1978 shooting death of a security guard. McKinney was convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life in 1982. Now 49, he has been in prison ever since.
Presented with the group's findings in 2006, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Law School filed a post-conviction petition in October 2008 in the Cook County Circuit Court, requesting that McKinney's prison term either be vacated or he be given a new trial.
The case was assigned to a judge later that year, and in May 2009 state prosecutors subpoenaed the students' binders, grades, e-mails and course syllabi in what they call a "truth seeking process," according to court documents. The students names have not yet been released.