Northwestern journalism students under investigation

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November 9, 2009

11:59 PM

Journalism students at Northwestern University are under scrutiny for an investigation they conducted into a 1978 murder as part of a class project.

Students in professor David Protess’s journalism class believe that they have conclusive evidence that the state of Illinois put an innocent man in jail for the 1978 murder of a security guard.

However, when the case was reopened at the request of Northwestern’s legal clinic, the students found themselves under investigation. The prosecution suggested that the students may have been pressured to prove the convicted man’s innocence in order to receive good grades.

“Why are we talking about our grades when we should be talking about whether there’s an innocent man in prison?” Evan Benn, a student in Protess’s class subpoenaed by the prosecution, said to The Associated Press.

The Cook County, Ill. prosecution subpoenaed all of the students’ notes, documents and records for any compensation of expenses that they received during the investigation.

“It’s been framed as a witch hunt or a fishing expedition, and it’s not,” Sally Daly, spokeswoman for Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez, said to the AP.

The prosecution is trying to ascertain whether or not the students conducting the investigation would personally benefit from proving the convicted man’s innocence, which could have skewed their findings.

“It goes to the interest and the bias of the students,” Daly said. “Did they receive a better grade in the class? Was there incentive for these students to develop additional information?”

Northwestern University and Protess are challenging these claims. But while this is not the first time that they have conducted such a project, it is the first time they are being investigated. Protess is responsible for founding the Medill Innocence Project, which has helped obtain the release 11 innocent men from prison and death row.

“It is worrisome that the response of the justice system is not to interview the witnesses but to investigate the investigators,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, to the AP.

According to Protess, his students have received A’s in his class despite unearthing evidence that solidified guilt in previous investigation and would have no incentive to change their findings in order to get better grades.

“Students are rewarded for advancing the cause of truth, regardless of where the facts lead them,” Protess said.

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