A group of Northwestern University journalism students who believe they found proof that exonerates a man held behind bars for 31 years on a murder conviction are being accused of paying two witnesses for testimony that would help their case.
Thirty students from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism Innocence Project spent three years investigating the case of Anthony McKinney, who has been serving a life sentence for the murder and armed robbery of a security guard since 1982, and eventually unearthed evidence they believe implicates two other men in the murder.
But two witnesses to the 1978 shooting death cited in the students' evidence now claim the students flirted with them and offered them money in exchange for interviews, according to court filings by the Illinois State Attorney's Office in Cook County Circuit Court this week.
Prosecutors subpoenaed the students' binders, grades, e-mails and course syllabi in May in what the state called a "truth seeking process." When the university filed a motion to quash the subpoena, the state replied with Tuesday's court documents, further detailing why they say they need access to all the students' documents in order to determine whether McKinney's prison term should be vacated or he be given a new trial.
The state cited a need to be able to "evaluate all of the evidence in context," including evidence that may shed light on the students' "bias, motive and interest," and a need for access to more than just the material the school agrees to turn over. In earlier filings, prosecutors said they wanted to be sure that no student was offered a better grade in exchange for uncovering evidence that would lead to McKinney's release.
David Protess, the Northwestern professor who heads the Innocence Project, told ABCNews.com he thinks the state's recent filing is a "continuation of the smear campaign they started in May."
"The prosecutors ironically are relying on two career criminals for their allegations," said Protess. "It's a convicted killer and another man who has a long criminal record who told provably false stories to the state attorney's investigators who then reported them in a court filing yesterday."
One of the witnesses who recanted videotaped testimony he gave to the Northwestern students, Tony Drakes, is one of two individuals the students believe is responsible for the crime.
Since its inception in 1999, the Innocence Project has freed 11 men, five of whom were sitting on death row.
A spokeswoman for the prosecution said the subpoena for the students' records was a regular part of the investigative process.
"Our job as prosecutors is to investigate whether it proves guilt or innocence," said Sally Daly. "We're running down every lead, interview, and all of the information that exists regarding interviews and the information that Northwestern has accumulated throughout the course of the investigation."
One of the former Northwestern students involved in the case, Evan Benn, now 27 and working as a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Dispatch, called the accusations that he bribed witnesses into giving interviews "patently false," and said he is shocked that five years after he researched the case McKinney is still behind bars for a crime Benn is convinced he didn't commit.
"It's not fair because it's not true," said Benn. "It's frustrating to be accused of something that you know you didn't do, and that's what I'm grappling with."