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October 25, 2009

"Prosecutors Turn Tables on Student Journalists"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article in this morning's New York Times.  Though not quite a sentencing story, the piece provides an interesting object lesson in how some prosecutors respond when their work is closely scrutinized.  Here is how the piece begins:

For more than a decade, classes of students at Northwestern University’s journalism school have been scrutinizing the work of prosecutors and the police. The investigations into old crimes, as part of the Medill Innocence Project, have helped lead to the release of 11 inmates, the project’s director says, and an Illinois governor once cited those wrongful convictions as he announced he was commuting the sentences of everyone on death row.

But as the Medill Innocence Project is raising concerns about another case, that of a man convicted in a murder 31 years ago, a hearing has been scheduled next month in Cook County Circuit Court on an unusual request: Local prosecutors have subpoenaed the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students themselves.

The prosecutors, it seems, wish to scrutinize the methods of the students this time. The university is fighting the subpoenas. Lawyers in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office say that in their quest for justice in the old case, they need every pertinent piece of information about the students’ three-year investigation into Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a security guard in 1978. Mr. McKinney’s conviction is being reviewed by a judge. Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.

Northwestern University and David Protess, the professor who leads the students and directs the Medill Innocence Project, say the demands are ridiculously overreaching, irrelevant to Mr. McKinney’s case, in violation of the state’s protections for journalists and a breach of federal privacy statutes — not to mention insulting.

John Lavine, the dean of the Medill School of Journalism, said the suggestion that students might have thought their grades were linked to what witnesses said was “astonishing.” He said he believed that federal law barred him from providing the students grades, but that he had no intention of doing so in any case..

A spokeswoman for Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney, who was elected last fall, said the prosecutors were simply trying to get to the bottom of the McKinney case.

October 25, 2009 at 06:27 PM | Permalink


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There are two groups more morally reprehensible than the lawyer criminal cult enterprise. One is journalists. These are lying advocates, but they do not disclose that. Lawyers admit they are advocates. Journalists advocate by selecting facts, and hide their intent, in violation of their code of conduct.


The second group consists of convicted felons.

To have a story in which these three morally sickening groups go at each other? Delicious.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 25, 2009 8:35:54 PM

I think that everyone who reads this blog with any frequency knows that old SC is full of bullshit and blather and likes to hear himself talk just to see if he can get a rise out of anyone. He is mostly easy to ignore because generally when I see the SC tag I just skip on to read someone who has something useful to say. However this snarky little tidbit caught my eye as his reference to convicted felons so conveniently lumps all felons together into, I would imagine in his fantasy world, someone akin to Charles Manson or worse. I think of Martha Stewart or a very young person caught up in a federal conspiracy net cast by some self serving AUSA and convicted of a non-violent felony. What a danger to society these "felons" are. Do you fear for your life? And BTW, I am neither a lawyer, a journalist or a felon. Nope, not even a misdemeanor, just an old man with a strong sense of fairness and a little compassion, which is a word that SC is definitely not familiar with.

I am reminded of the old World War Two story of the man who, when the Nazi's came for the Catholics, did not speak up, when they came for the Gypsies, he did not speak up, then the Jews and still he did not speak up. Then one day they came for him and there was no one left to speak up. SC one can only hope that one day, for some reason, you will need a little compassion and that there will be no one willing to speak up or, better yet, someone whom you so callously write off as useless and of no consequence will step up, look you in the eye and spit in your sorry face. Hats off to Professor Berman for allowing you to continue to post on his Blog.

Posted by: HadEnough | Oct 25, 2009 10:37:12 PM

HadEnough: Not a word of compassion for the millions of crime victims in your personal remarks. The readers here are the freaks. The public has had enough with the lawyer and his client.

I do not believe in mind reading, but I am going to guess. You are a left wing ideologue whose salary depends on the lawyer client. If your living does depend on the lawyer client, you are arguing for your economic interest, and your remarks have no validity.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 25, 2009 11:19:22 PM

"A spokeswoman for Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney, who was elected last fall, said the prosecutors were simply trying to get to the bottom of the McKinney case."

Well, congratulations to you Ms. Alvarez. With this maneuver you have in fact reached the bottom of the case; it's not possible to stoop any lower.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 26, 2009 12:26:58 AM

HadEnough: In fairness to me, I have strongly criticized the failing methods of the lawyer. This incompetent is allowing an outrageously high rate of false conviction, including a roughly 20% rate in the death penalty, after the incompetent has spent $million on each case, and a possible 40% innocence rate in plea bargains.

I have also criticized the self dealing lawyer who wanted to see his name in the paper and spent $millions on prosecuting Martha Stewart on a $100 beef (She perhaps made a $billion as her stock fell then rose).

I hope you start to read and closely parse every Comment so as to not miss a single utterance, and so as to not make invalid criticism based on your missing reading the Supremacy's carefully drafted Comments. [Parsing is a Scholasticist method and violates the Establishment Clause. There is almost nothing the lawyer does which is right and not in utter failure. Why? All doctrines and methods come from 800 years ago. Nothing they did then is in any way acceptable in any practice today.]

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 26, 2009 5:42:31 AM

Remember the Scott Peterson case? Student-gathered surveys were introduced as evidence for a change of venue. Multiple lazy students had just made up the answers. They couldn't be bothered to actually call people.

The DA is quite right to investigate.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 26, 2009 1:42:54 PM

SC, Martha Stewart was imprisoned for lying to bureaucrats (federal agents), not trading violations.

Wrongly convicted citizens are forever stigmatized as felons regardless of the circumstances of their downfall...which would seem to place them squarely in your (SC's) second category of moral condemnation?

The young journalists at Northwestern and their professors have been pretty forthright about their "agenda." They want to free innocent citizens from prison or prevent them from being executed. What's wrong with that?

As a former journalist (newspaper editor), I'm proud of their efforts.

Like most of the rest of us, prosecutors don't enjoy having their mistakes exposed. Unlike most of the rest of us though, prosecutors have ungodly powers to retaliate against those who annoy or offend them. It looks like that's what's happening in this instance.

Posted by: John K | Oct 26, 2009 2:00:56 PM


Did the court really need a student-conducted poll to determine bias existed after the massive, protracted, tabloid-style coverage (local as well as national) of the Peterson case?

It seems worth mentioning, too, that students who fudged survey data turned themselves in after learning the survey had been instrumental in moving the trial.

If I read the innocence-project story correctly, videos of the students' interviews exist as a record of what they did...or didn't do, which would seem to rule out fiction or laziness.

The story also noted students in the IP on at least two previous occasions determined the accused perps were the actual perps.

The prosecutors might have put time and energy to better use retracing evidence in the initial conviction than inferring nefarious motives to a journalism professor and going gangbusters on his grading system.

Posted by: John K | Oct 26, 2009 3:31:27 PM

John K, certainly the prosecution has every right to ask questions about the motivations of these guys. Was there inculpatory evidence that was blown off? Etc. Etc.

But I agree that the subpoena does seem a bit overbroad.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 26, 2009 3:49:29 PM

Well what have we here? Looks like, could be, it is, more "carefully crafted" blather and bullshit from old SC. A lot of words that basically offer nothing of use to anyone. He does not seem to be able to read very well either as I think I clearly stated that I am not a lawyer just an old man with a strong sense of fairness and a little compassion. Let me make it a little stronger. I do not have and have never had any relationship, monetary or otherwise, in any way shape form or fashion with the legal "industry." In fact I am retired from an industry far removed from the legal business and draw no "salary" from anyone so am "dependant" on no one. Further, I fail to see any connection between my ideology and my compassion for victims of the system but, for the record, on most issues I tend to be just slightly, only slightly mind you, to the right of Attila the Hun or perhaps Rush Limbaugh. Your choice.

You are correct in saying that I made no reference to my boundless compassion for the victims of criminal activity. Did you also happen to notice that I made no reference to compassion for the victims of homelessness, poverty, genocide or any one of many other "causes." I didn't reference them because the article didn't. It addressed wrongful convictions, victims of the system and my response was to the article.

You characterize my remarks as personal,and they are,but you do it while implying that your assassination of the readers of this blog (you call them freaks) the lawyers, and journalist (morally reprehensible is one of your milder attacks) is not personal. Does an attack on a group make the attack less personal? I think not.
John K said "Wrongly convicted citizens are forever stigmatized as felons regardless of the circumstances of their downfall (My passion lies here. Giving some of these "victims a real "Second Chance").....which would seem to place them squarely in your (SC's) second category of moral condemnation?" He goes on to say, "Like most of the rest of us, prosecutors don't enjoy having their mistakes exposed. Unlike most of the rest of us though, prosecutors have ungodly powers to retaliate against those who annoy or offend them. It looks like that's what's happening in this instance." I agree whole heartedly and with regard to the last sentence further submit that some of them use the same ungodly power to over-criminalize entrap, coerce, mislead, manipulate, lie and unjustly convict for the sake of personal gain. Not most but enough to be of concern.

Many of us come here because this is one of the best places on the web to gain knowledge and information that may help us leave this place a little better than we found it. There are many here who offer insightful comments, share their knowledge and some even share their compassion. You, on the other hand, offer nothing of value.
Truth is I don't know why I bothered to start this rant as your response was completely predictable. I should know by now that when you jump in a mud hole with pigs all you get is dirty and the pigs love it. I'll just do what I already knew to do, ignore you; you just aren't worth the effort. Anyone want to join in?

Again, thanks to Prof. Berman for his work and this blog.

Posted by: HadEnough | Oct 26, 2009 5:14:27 PM

John: The journalist has a code of ethics that promotes giving both sides. The lawyer is honest about his advocacy. No one holds that against the lawyer because of his openness. If a newspaper publishes only innocence evidence, it implies there is no guilt evidence, because of their promise to the public to be fair and complete. If the students said, we will investigate the corroboration of guilt as well as the evidence of innocence, that is journalism. The evidence of innocence alone is advocacy and more like lawyering. This one sidedness violates their code of ethics, something they do with regularity and immunity stemming from the Free Press Clause.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 26, 2009 5:36:47 PM

HadEnough: The lawyer is like a fish in a sewer. He is not even aware of the sewer. When someone pops in from the land and air, put his hand into the sewer, the new awareness is exciting to the lawyer. I am the hand in the sewer bringing news and views from high school World History and freshman Western Civ 101 to help the lawyer move from there. Prof. Berman likes the stirring of the sewer water, the aeration, the hand from above. I am also dumber in native IQ than he is, therefore not a competitor or adversary. I am an average person bringing news of the 21st Century to very smart people mired in the sewer. They like it, are refreshed by it. I also offer procedural innovations that are totally within the law as it stands now. If these were to be used, they would deter the hierarchy. There are lots of useful tools that I offer. Had Martha used advice similar to mine, instead of that of her top lawyers, the rat bastard traitors, she would not have gone to jail. Her prosecutorial oppressors would have lost their jobs, and her life would not have been disrupted.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 26, 2009 5:45:11 PM

At Johnathan Turley's blog you can find his interview about the Medill Innocense Project. It is about 30 minutes and was on NPR.

Posted by: beth | Oct 26, 2009 7:08:23 PM

John, the court did indeed need evidence to rule on a motion. I don't think taking judicial notice of the National Enquirer is the way we want to go.

The point is not the merits of the motion but that using students as investigators is a method that warrants scrutiny. It's not necessarily bad, but it requires attention.

Indeed, your own comment shows one problem. "It seems worth mentioning, too, that students who fudged survey data turned themselves in after learning the survey had been instrumental in moving the trial."

It is indeed worth mentioning. AFTER learning? They weren't told up front the importance of what they were doing?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 26, 2009 7:26:34 PM

Ms. Alvarez seems to be doing what embarrassed government employees do. Redirect public attention to some other issue. Prosecutors have WAY too much power and this is proof positive of that. One of the few groups to check these overzealous prosecutors are journalists who investigate. This Country is going downhill even faster people.

Posted by: Libertarianman | Oct 26, 2009 9:45:46 PM

You comments seem pretty reasonable to me. I see ignoring SC for blatant trolling.

Posted by: Libertarianman | Oct 26, 2009 9:48:03 PM

HadEnough and Libertarianman, if I may ask, what are your professions? Mine is full time owner of the law.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 26, 2009 10:04:37 PM

Kent, of course the court needed evidence to rule on the motion. I'm just surprised it settled for an undergraduate class-project survey. I mean, seriously, are you (is anybody) truly surprised some college undergrads (who may or may not have been journalism majors) blew off a class assignment?

Don't judges read newspapers, watch television? This case didn't need a mystic (or a bunch of busy, distracted college students) to see potential jury pool contamination.

My reference to tabloid coverage wasn't limited to the Enquirer. As I recall, mainstream media was gleefully in tabloid mode for the Peterson story. And, of course, local media (where the trial would have been held) felt compelled to outdo national media on such a splashy story in its own backyard.

And yes, of course, student investigators probably wouldn't be anybody's first choice to solve a high-stakes mystery. But the Cal State students apparently were only trying to snow a professor with their survey data; the Northwestern IP students routinely toss their work into the cauldron of adversarial courtroom proceedings where fakery, fudging and skewing presumably are far more likely to be exposed.

Posted by: John K | Oct 27, 2009 1:09:17 AM

Libertarianman,thanks. If, as he says, SC's "profession" is full time owner of the law, me thinks perhaps it is time for him to seek more suitable employment. He is a miserable failure at this one.

Posted by: HadEnough | Oct 27, 2009 11:00:26 AM

Interesting. Could the journalism or defense team now subpoena rules, policies, regulations, underground regulations and any evidence of unspoken policies (but hinted at through email exchanges) that support an analogous grading curve for prosecutorial "moral disengagement" that may support convicting the innocent or keeping them convicted?

Posted by: George | Oct 27, 2009 11:12:23 AM

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