Friday, March 23, 2012

Closing of Point Park University's Innocence Project should be open to public dispute

The following opinion by Cody McDevitt was published in the Point Park Globe on March 18, 2012.

Since March Madness is upon us, I think it's fitting to recall a moviescene from “Hoosiers.” It's my favorite moment from any sports movie. Coach Norman Dale's job is in jeopardy. The town has called a meeting to vote on whether he should be fired.

Here's how the scene goes, for those who haven't seen it:

"I've made some mistakes, but they're mistakes I take full responsibility for," Coach Dale said. "I was hired to teach the boys the game of basketball, and I did that to the best of my ability. I apologize for nothing. You may not be pleased with the results, but I am. I'm ver yproud of these boys."

Later on in the scene, the basketball star Jimmy Chitwood arrives.

"I don't know if it'll make any change, but I figured it's timefor me to start playing ball," he said.

The crowd erupts into applause.

The foreman of the meeting declares as he points to Coach Dale,"I told you once we got rid of him," Jimmy continues. "One other thing. I play. Coach stays. He goes. I go."

I wish I could say my writing abilities were on the level of Jimmy Chitwood's basketball talents, but that would be delusional and narcissistic. There is someone I know though who is close to Norman Dale.His name is Bill Moushey, and he is my professor in the Innocence Institute graduate level class I take at Point Park University. He teaches the game of journalism.

When I was in high school, I got in a passionate disagreement with Kevin Bastos, my media studies teacher. He said he wouldn't mind if one innocent man were in jail so long as 100 guilty men were there with him. I, as an idealist, took the counterpoint. I would rather have the guilty roam free so long as the innocent weren't punished. We didn't get along very well.

My college journalism teachers were more principled. My favorite teacher, Doug Cosper, taught me to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

He travels the world and teaches journalism abroad and in Colorado. He's someone who taught me a lot.

But the person I've met with the most experience, the most wisdom and the most fascinating stories about journalism is Bill Moushey.Up to this semester, my first in graduate school, I had never met a reporter who was once at the wrong end of a gun because of a story he wrote, nor had I met someone who used so many colorful anecdotes and analogies. He epitomizes what you think when you hear the term hard-nosed journalist. He's Pittsburgh's Pete Hamill.

So it was heart-wrenching to see him well up with tears this week. The organization he champions, the Innocence Institute, will no longer exist after this semester. The reason, as it always is with journalism schools, was financial in nature.

For those who aren't familiar with the Innocence Institute, it is an organization dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted men and women.Point Park is one of only three schools to be affiliated with the Innocence project. It has reversed 14 convictions.
Moushey is the antithesis of what my high school media studies teacher was.Though he knows firsthand from all the letters he receives from convicted pedophiles, rapists and murderers that you assume convicts are guilty, he also knows that innocent men get railroaded by unreliable eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct or by the withholding of evidence.Furthermore, he takes it upon himself and his students to correct injustice when it is done and to aggressively pursue the truth, however ugly it maybe.

I know I can't stand in front of the Point Park faculty and threaten to "not play." That would make no difference. But I want to bring this decision to the public so lawyers, journalists and community organizers can think about whether they want to write emails or letters to the School of Communication at Point Park to request that they continue this program.

Ultimately, whether or not an innocent man is in jail probably won't affect you unless you are that innocent man or if he's your brother or father. But I hope there are enough idealists out there to not let the Innocence Institute go so easily.

One of my favorite historical quotes expresses a principle that Bill Moushey embodies. Eugene Debs said it on Sept. 18, 1918. If you don't appreciate it, then you probably won't understand why the Innocence Institute is so noble."Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

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