Nov. 12, 2009 -- 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."
Witnesses Say Students 'Flirted' With Them
According to the court documents, Tony Drakes, one of the witnesses the students believe was involved in the 1978 murder of security guard Donald Lundahl, told state investigators that he "gave the students a video statement for money" and recanted the videotaped statement.
In the prosecutors' documents, Drakes alleges that Sergio Serritella, the private investigator working with the students, gave a taxi driver $60 for what was estimated to be a $6 cab ride home to a bus station near where the 2004 interview took place.
Drakes says the the cab driver gave him "the change" -- about $40 -- which Drakes says he later spent on crack cocaine.
Protess said a student did give the cab driver money, but argued that his students and Serritella were following "journalistic practice" in helping a source get home safely from an interview.
"What we have control over is getting the receipt from the cab driver that he is the one who was given the money," said Protess. "What happened to the money afterward we have no control of."
Records from the cab company are included in Tuesday's filings and show that the cab driver was, in fact, given the money. Drakes, referring to the students as "snotty and manipulative" in conversations with state investigators, has since recanted the videotaped testimony that he gave to the Northwestern students in which he said McKinney was not even present the night the security guard was killed.
Another witness, Francis Drakes, Tony Drakes' nephew, initially told police that Tony Drakes admitted the security guard's murder, according to the court documents filed Tuesday. But the documents reveal that he also later told investigators that the female students who interviewed him "flirted with him" and "flattered him" during the interviews.
He went on to say his testimony that implicated Tony Drakes in the murder was "a story" that he gave the female students so they would stay with him longer. Francis Drakes is currently in jail on an unrelated murder conviction.
School Says Students Targeted
The prosecutor's office admits in court documents to paying another witness, Michael Lane, $10 for gas after their interview.
Protess suggests giving the money directly to a witness might be worse than giving it to a cab driver.
"What's worse?" asked Protess. "Giving money directly to a source or paying a cab driver to take the source from an interview? They are certainly the pot calling the kettle black."
The prosecution's spokeswoman Daly called Protess' analogy "ridiculous."
"We did not pay for any interviews or statements," said Daly, "Nothing of that nature, unlike what apparently happened with the students and the investigators."
The university's lawyer, Richard O'Brien, told ABCNews.com the Cook County's prosecutor's office is wrongly focusing attention on the students' records and could jeopardize future investigations. The school worries that turning the legal microscope on the students could deter future students from participating in the Innocence Project.
The school's lawyers have until Jan. 11 to respond to the prosecution's latest request.