The Innocence Project crossed a line | On Media | Chicago Reader

The Innocence Project crossed a line 

But it's not a clear or straight line: Chicago magazine, David Protess, and the murky mores of investigative reporting

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The university offered one now-celebrated example. The forensic review of Protess's computers had established that in December 2009 Protess sent the dean and the attorneys a "falsified communication in an attempt to hide the fact that the student memos had been shared with Mr. McKinney's lawyers." He'd shown them a 2007 e-mail to his assistant, Rebekah Wanger, that said, "My position about memos, as you know, is that we don't keep copies . . ." Yet the university now knew the original wording was, "My position about memos, as you know, is that we share everything with the legal team, and don't keep copies . . ."

The "we don't keep copies" e-mail from Protess to Wanger is the only e-mail Smith cited. But last June the state's attorney's office put about 60 pages of e-mails in the public record—many of them ones Lavine had already shown the faculty. Rifle through them as I'm doing and ask yourself this: "Could the university read these and still claim Protess and his students acted as independent journalists, rather than as investigators in league with Anthony McKinney's attorney?" That's a central question Smith could have addressed on his own authority. (Smith referred me to his editor, Elizabeth Fenner, for an on-the-record response to Nesbitt. Fenner said Chicago stands by its story and she was sorry Nesbitt turned down the opportunity to write a letter to the editor.)

McKinney's attorney, Karen Daniel, to Protess, June 2, 2005: "It won't bother me if you and your students visit Tony before we do. It might even be preferable. We'll have a different type of relationship with him than your group, and if we overlap, it might be confusing to him. Let me know if you decide on a date (and I'll do the same)."
Protess to "Team McKinney," May 25, 2005: "I had a long talk with Karen yesterday about the case. . . . We agreed on a protocol for disseminating memos and transcripts of your forthcoming interviews. . . ."
Protess to Daniel, May 27, 2005: "We finally located Clyde Long ('Huckabuck'), the alleged eyewitness to the Lundahl murder. . . . Needless to say, I'll immediately let you know what he recalls about the shooting."
Protess to Daniel, June 6, 2005: "Here is a transcript of the latest prison interview with Francis Drake, Tony Drake's nephew. . . . While Francis was incredibly helpful, I firmly believe that he knows more than he's saying. I'm hopeful that in future interviews he'll directly implicate his Uncle Tony, Michael Lane and others in the crime. (In particular, it would be great if he'd acknowledge that his uncle said 'We shot. . .' rather than 'they shot' when he and Lane entered the home on the night of the crime . . . )"
Daniel to Protess, December 14, 2005: "In looking at your students' list of future plans, though, I noticed that Gwen Pettis is a prospective interviewee. I'm writing to suggest that your students not contact her. One of my students (in fact, my most personable student) talked with Gwen this semester . . ."
Protess to Daniel, December 7, 2005: "On Monday my students turned in their final reporting memos for the quarter. They're on the verge of several important breakthroughs, and will push to finish their work when they resume in January. (Four of the five are returning.) Meanwhile, if you'd like to read their memos, just have one of your students contact [staffer Yuri Gottesman]. I believe he has everything on a CD, or you can ask for printed copies."
Daniel to Rebekah Wanger, October 25, 2006: "My students are about to travel to Columbus OH to interview a witness named Dennis White. For the life of me I can't find the address and phone number that David's students found for White. Is that something you could put your hands on in the next day or so? For that matter, I have electronic copies of every semester of Medill reports on the McKinney case except Winter and Spring 2006. Yuri put them on a CD for me. Is there any chance that you could do that for the last two semester's worth of reports?"

It seems Protess, running the Innocence Project of Northwestern's journalism school, and Daniel, staff attorney for the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Northwestern's law school, conducted themselves as allies in a common cause. I'm neither shocked nor surprised; but, no, it's not the way journalists are supposed to act. In September, criminal court judge Diane Cannon ruled that the Innocence Project students hadn't been reporters and must obey the subpoena.

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