Journalism students' emails, report cards subpoenaed in review of 31-year-old conviction

Media observers are openly questioning whether prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois, are intentionally trying to undermine a long-running project to clear the innocent of wrongful convictions, after prosecutors reviewing a 31-year-old murder case subpoenaed the emails, grades, and even course materials of journalism students at Northwestern University.

In 2003, the Medill Innocence Project, run by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, launched an investigation into the conviction of Anthony McKinney, who was found guilty of killing a security guard in the Chicago suburb of Harvey in 1978.

In 2008, lawyers filed a post-conviction petition with the Cook County Circuit Court, with evidence gathered by the Medill Project as part of their argument.

Now, prosecutors want to see just about anything and everything having to do with the students who researched the McKinney prosecution -- their grades, the course syllabi for their journalism classes, their emails, and their notes and recordings of witness interviews.

The New York Times reports:

Lawyers in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office say that in their quest for justice in the old case, they need every pertinent piece of information about the students’ three-year investigation into Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a security guard in 1978. Mr. McKinney’s conviction is being reviewed by a judge.

Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.

The suggestion that students were encouraged to find evidence of wrongful prosecution even if there were none has raised alarms among some legal experts, who wonder whether Cook County prosecutors may be trying to discredit the project that has caused embarrassment for numerous prosecutors over the past decade.

"They're either trying to undermine the investigation, or they're trying to undermine the entire project," Don Craven, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, told the press last week.

Northwestern University officials are fighting the subpoena, arguing that it's too broad and the students are protected by Illinois' broad Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act. Additionally, the dean of the journalism school, John Levine, has said it would be illegal for the school to hand over the students' grades. And "frankly, even if I could, I wouldn’t share them,” he told the Daily Northwestern.

Lavine told the New York Times the notion that the students' grades could affect the evidence in a 31-year-old murder prosecution is "astonishing."

As the Times points out, forcing private information into public about Northwestern students could affect the willingness of others to participate in innocence projects around the country.

If the school gives in to such a demand, say advocates of the Medill Innocence Project and more than 50 similar projects (most involving law schools and legal clinics), the stakes could be still higher, discouraging students from taking part or forcing groups to devote time and money to legal assistance.

“Every time the government starts attacking the messenger as opposed to the message, it can have a chilling effect,” said Barry C. Scheck, a pioneer of the Innocence Project in New York, who said he had never seen a similar demand from prosecutors.

Northwestern officials have said they have no intention of turning over students' private information to prosecutors. If the court rules against them, they could face contempt-of-court charges, the Times notes.