Since it was founded in 1999, the Medill Innocence Project, staffed by journalism students at Northwestern University, has helped free 11 prisoners, five of whom had been sentenced to death. Then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan credited the project's work when he announced a moratorium on the state death penalty in 2000 and when he granted clemency to all state death row inmates in 2003. But Cook County, Illinois, State Attorney Anita Alvarez is no fan.
In 2003 the project began looking into the case of Anthony McKinney, who has spent 31 years in prison for the 1978 murder of a security guard in Chicago. The journalism students completed their investigation in 2006, and the evidence they uncovered suggesting McKinney may be innocent is now being hashed out in court.
You might think Alvarez would be grateful for the students' efforts in exposing a possible injustice, especially since she had nothing to do with McKinney's conviction. Instead, Alvarez took the highly unusual step of subpoenaing the notes, grades, expense reports, and even private email messages of the students who investigated the case. When her office filed a brief in Cook County Criminal Court defending this demand for information, it was scornful of the class project, arguing that the "school believes it should be exempt from the scrutiny of this honorable court and the justice system, yet it should be deemed a purveyor of its inadequacies to the public."
Northwestern is fighting the subpoena, with help from several First Amendment and professional journalism organizations. Martin Kaiser of the American Society of News Editors sent Alvarez a letter stating that the attempt to access the students' personal information was a clear effort to intimidate current and future students, thereby discouraging them from investigating wrongful convictions. At press time, Cook County Criminal Court Judge Diane Cannon had yet to rule on the subpoena.