The Medill Innocence Project posts a dissenting view | Bleader

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Medill Innocence Project posts a dissenting view

Posted By on 03.15.12 at 09:00 AM

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Ariel Gomez
  • Natalie Krebs/Medill
  • Ariel Gomez
The night the Bulls nailed down their fifth NBA championship—June 13, 1997—a rowdy crowd gathered to celebrate at the intersection of Cicero and Diversey. Shots were fired. Concepcion Diaz, 32, a husband and father who'd finished work and was waiting for a bus home, was mortally wounded. A few hours later police arrested five teenage boys who'd been cruising the scene in a car. All were charged with murder. Three were eventually acquitted, and three years later the sentence of the fourth was reduced on appeal and he was freed. The fifth, Ariel Gomez, remains in prison for murder.

Last December the Medill Innocence Project posted on its website the results of a ten-week investigation into Gomez's case by seven Northwestern students. They'd raised what the site called "serious questions" about Gomez's conviction.

On Wednesday the Innocence Project did something remarkable. It posted new material on Gomez that challenges his claim that he's innocent. The widow of Diaz is interviewed. "If he’s innocent, or not innocent, God will forgive him. It doesn’t matter to me,” she says. And a long-lost witness is tracked down, the only one of the four other teens in the car whom Medill students hadn't already interviewed.

"“He’s guilty,” he tells the Innocence Project. “He is guilty, and this is coming from a longtime friend."

The Medill students haven't reversed themselves here. Diaz's widow has no new light to shed on the crime beyond conveying her ongoing loss and sadness. There are all sorts of inconsistencies in the account of the new witness, and the website points them out.

But it's hard to see how the new material will do Gomez's cause any good. Prosecutors welcome any excuse for letting sleeping dogs lie and murder convictions go unrevisited.

But what the Innocence Project clearly has accomplished is to put more distance between its present operations under professor Alec Klein and its old operations under its founder, David Protess. The new material was announced by a news release whose message, despite some clumsy wording, is clear:

"For the first time in the Medill Innocence Project’s 13-year history, students tell the victim’s story and publish an article about co-defendant of Illinois inmate Ariel Gomez who disputes Gomez’s claims of innocence."

Protess, accused of taking partisanship to the point of impropriety, was removed last year from the Innocence Project and left the university. Klein took over.

"My feeling is pretty straightforward," Klein told me Wednesday. "The Medill Innocence Project is to find the truth whatever that truth is, however it shakes out. When we begin an investigation I tell our students, 'I don't know what we're going to get but we have to follow the leads and we'll write what we know.' In this case it so happened the story led us to a key witness who said the prisoner was guilty. We're not going to suppress information. We're not advocates. We're journalists."

Klein described the search for Paul Yalda, the missing teen, as a terrific teaching experience. Yalda knew the Medill students were looking for him and he didn't want to be found, so from his friends and family in Chicago the Medill students got misleading information—that he was in Boston, or Canada, or parts unknown, despite indications he'd moved to Arizona. Finally, said Klein, a Google search turned up a reference "to a misdemeanor charge that required Paul Yaldo to appear in a small courthouse in Arizona" on a misdemeanor charge. Yaldo and four students flew to Arizona and staked out the courthouse. "We went with an extensive reporting strategy in hand. We had a tremendous amount of information on him. If we hadn't found him our story would have been 'the elusive Paul Yalda.' The documents indicated he had suffered a great deal since that crime The crime set him on a downward spiral. We were going to tell that story."

But there he was, and even though he told the students he had no intention of talking to them, eventually he did. "The students are really proud of their reporting," said Klein. "Even for seasoned pros, this was is quite an accomplishment . . . pushing forward in the face of repeated failure. [In investigative journalism] the rewards are pretty amazing if you do have a breakthrough. I think the students experienced that this term."

But under Protess the Innocence Project measured its breakthroughs and accomplishments in terms of convicted prisoners exonerated and released from prison. Perhaps that standard was ultimately corrupting; but measured against it, an interview with a tangential figure who tells a story at the prisoner's expense, though it doesn't seem to hold much water, advances the students' education a lot further than it does justice.

"That’s not the way I'm viewing it at all," said Klein. "I recognize that was part of it in the past. We have a different mission, and it's actually reflected on the website. We put a little logo up, 'In Pursuit of the Truth." That’s what we’re after. The ends do not justify the means. We’re not keeping score about exonerations. We want to teach students how to do things well and properly."

Once the Medill findings are posted, prosecutors are welcome to review them online, and so are the attorneys for the prisoners. Klein thinks that at the moment Ariel Gomez doesn't have an attorney. As for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, which under Anita Alvarez made accusations against Protess that led to his downfall, Klein doesn't know if it's reviewed either of the two cases his students have examined so far. "I hope they're taking a look at it," Klein said.

"I think the State's Attorney's Office has a tough job," he told me. "They just announced a unit to look at wrongful convictions. It’s a demonstration that they understand this is worthwhile."

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