< Investigating the Investigators


Friday, October 30, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, a legal battle between the Cook County District Attorney’s Office and a group of journalism students at Medill Journalism School in Chicago made the news. The issue is the students’ investigation of the 1978 murder of a security guard named Donald Lundahl, a crime for which Anthony McKinney has been serving a life sentence for more than 30 years. The journalism students were part of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that aims to free wrongfully convicted people around the country. With their professor, David Protess, the class conducted a three-year investigation during which two eyewitnesses, whose testimony sent McKinney to prison, recanted. Dennis Pettis was one of those eyewitnesses. He told the students that 30 years ago the police had abused and intimidated him into lying about witnessing the murder.

MALE STUDENT: What did they tell you to say happened?

DENNIS PETTIS: That Anthony McKinney killed.

MALE STUDENT: And you signed a statement at the time that –

DENNIS PETTIS: Yeah, that’s right.

MALE STUDENT: - attests to it? And was that true at the time?


MALE STUDENT: So you’re saying today that what you wrote or said at that time was not true.

DENNIS PETTIS: That’s correct.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: The students compiled other documents, including sworn affidavits that attested to McKinney’s innocence. They turned their findings over to lawyers in 2006, but recently the Cook County D.A. began to focus on the students.

FEMALE JOURNALIST: The students’ investigative materials have been subpoenaed by the Cook County state’s attorney, as well as their grades, evaluations of their performance, emails and class syllabus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The District Attorney’s Office says it needs that information to prove that the students had no incentive to find the prisoners innocent, that it wouldn't mean a higher grade. The Medill Journalism School says that’s ridiculous. While the class’ work has helped 11 eleven innocent men in the past decade, including five from death row, they've also investigated cases in which they found the convicts guilty. The D.A. also charges that the students really are investigators, not reporters, and so they don't deserve the protections that journalists can claim, to which Medill Dean John Lavine says:

JOHN LAVINE: If you really want to make that argument, you’re almost nine decades too late. Medill has had its students doing journalism in major journalism outlets around the world since 1921. It just seems to me disingenuous, at the least, and shocking, at the forefront, to suggest that the people producing journalism aren't journalists.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re claiming protection for the students under the Illinois Shield Law. How do you think the shield law protects these students?

JOHN LAVINE: The way the Illinois law is written, what the students did and the stories and the putting it on the Web and posting it all and summarizing it for the public and making it available to every professional journalism outlet in the country is journalism.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The D.A. declined to be interviewed on our show.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: They did send us a lengthy document with their objections. They argue that this is the discovery phase of the McKinney case, so they need all of the relevant information regarding the evidence. And they say that the school has only turned over what it wants to turn over, that they don't know basic things, like how many times each witness was interviewed by the students. They say this is only a tiny portion of the materials generated by nine teams of students over a three-year period of investigation, and they say that in the pursuit of fairness and justice they are owed more.

JOHN LAVINE: In the pursuit of fairness and justice, the prosecutors ought to get off their thumbs and go talk to the witnesses and find out for themselves if those statements hold up. Look, I'm the biggest fan on the planet of Medill faculty and students, and I watch their process up close and personal. But I wouldn't want what journalists or journalism students do to be the backbone of a case going into court. What you want is the prosecutors to do that. That’s their job. And they've got this smokescreen up deflecting attention to the students. If that was really a problem, it would have happened one of the of the 11 cases [BROOKE LAUGHS] over the last 10 years, where people have been found innocent in jail and exonerated. It never was necessary then, and the process and the system worked painstakingly and well. This is an attempt, for a reason I'm not fully sure [LAUGHS] - I'm sure I don't fully understand.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that is an interesting question. Why now?

JOHN LAVINE: The state’s attorney said - I want to know if they wanted to get a better grade. The answer: It doesn't matter what the students feel or what the students think, because the students are not producing evidence for court. The students are producing facts which they turn over to the Law School’s Center for Wrongful Conviction, who further checks, and they turn them over to the prosecutors. And the prosecutors ought to, frankly, stop going back to people who have no role in the court process and do what they're supposed to do. I mean, they benefit – we all benefit – if the public believes and knows for a fact that they care as much about innocence as they do about guilt.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not turn over the information they're asking for?

JOHN LAVINE: They're asking for things, first of all, legally I can't turn over. If you’re a parent and you call me up and ask to see your child’s grades, federal law has long prohibited me from providing it. If there wasn't a federal law, I still wouldn't do it. The students need to know that they can have the confidence of talking to their professor and getting the help they need, on the phone, in emails, by text message. I'm not about to have them suffer the chilling effect of feeling that if they do their class assignment they could end up being in court for something that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the courtroom.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Medill has asked the court to quash the subpoena, and the judge is set to hear oral arguments next week on November 10th. What are the consequences, do you think, if you fail to get that subpoena quashed?

JOHN LAVINE: I think the consequences are that anybody who knows someone in jail and comes across evidence, facts that say, gee, she couldn't have done it, would hesitate to turn it over and say do I really want to open my life to a fishing operation by the prosecution about things that have nothing to do with the facts that I'm turning over? What a terrible thing in a free society.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much.

JOHN LAVINE: You’re welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Lavine is dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. As we mentioned, we did request an interview with someone from the Cook County District Attorney’s Office. They declined.