The following editorial was published in the Cornell Daily Sun on October 28, 2009.
Students at Northwestern’s graduate school of journalism are doing more than learning to write ledes, conduct interviews and blog. Instead, they have worked toward and succeeded at exonerating innocent inmates who have been wrongfully accused. But now, the group of students who take part in the Medill Innocence Project are being threatened by a demand by local prosecution to hand over information surrounding a current investigation.
As student journalists, we are appalled by the Cook County Circuit Court, which has demanded the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages sent by students in the course, according to The New York Times. By encroaching on the students’ independent investigation into the case of Anthony McKinney, who was charged with murder in 1978, the court is undermining the legitimacy of the project.
In this most recent investigation, the students exposed in a videotaped interview that a key eyewitness in McKinney’s trial had been beaten by the police during his testimony “until he made made up a story against Anthony McKinney,” according to the Innocence Project’s website. The students further identified a number of other leading suspects, including a convicted killer who admits to being present at the murder and upholds McKinney’s innocence. But prosecutors doubt the validity of the study and are taking extraneous measures to derail the project’s findings.
Prosecutors are alleging that the students may be motivated by grades and thus might be inclined to interview specific suspects who would suggest a suspect’s innocence. McKinney’s case is open and ongoing and thus, the information obtained by the students is critical evidence. But the success of the Innocence Project, which has spearheaded investigations that have led to the release of 11 wrongfully accused inmates since 1999, suggests that these students are doing this for more than a grade.
Those at Medill have proven that they are fulfilling the role of the journalist — student or professional. As their efforts are unjustly policed, we feel a more broad attack is being made on journalism as a whole. Rather than dig into and verify the information being revealed, the prosecution is attacking those doing the uncovering, posing an immediate threat to the dissemination of truth.
Professors’ syllabi and students’ grades are purely data of academic significance. That the prosecution is seeking to intrude into this realm proves that they have an alternative motive that goes beyond the scope of a criminal investigation.
By providing confidential material to the court, the student journalists run the risk of becoming “an arm of the government,” as stated by David Protess, director of the Medill Innocence Project. “It would destroy our autonomy,” Protess told The New York Times. “We function with journalism standards and practices to guide our work.”
We stand behind those involved in the Innocence Project and the more than 50 other groups that are part of the Innocence Network. Further, we condemn the Cook County Circuit Court for the threats they are posing all those out there seeking to uncover the truth.