Northwestern Students' Records Subpoenaed by Illinois State Attorney Office

Prosecutors seek records from Northwestern students working to free jailed man.

ByABC News
October 20, 2009, 10:59 AM

Oct. 20, 2009 — -- 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 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 "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.