Innocence Project – Are Students Journalists?

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Students at Medill School of Journalism‘s Innocence Project have the rare opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life – and to do so by using their skills as budding professional journalists. Their work has resulted in the complete exoneration and release of 11 people who were convicted of murder. It also resulted in much criticism of Chicago’s police and prosecuting attorney’s office.

According to a report on NPR, they are now experiencing the scrutiny of the prosecutor’s office in a new way. Their class requires that they work as a group to re-report an old murder case where claims of innocence are at least plausible. Using court records, they visit the site of the crime and re-enact what was supposed to happen. They re-interview witnesses and suspects, all in the role of journalists. They use this evidence to write a report as they would have for a newspaper at the time of the murder and trial.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is now on the offensive against the students. She claims that their research is “skewed” (I think she means biased), that they are doing what it takes to show someone is innocent in order to get better grades. Their professor, David Protess, says that they will get a grade of A for following leads and demonstrating the truth, whatever that turns out to be. Alvarez’ claim, though, has some inherent probability: it’s easy to see how students might be energized by the more-interesting outcome of finding that someone is innocent.

Sometimes their findings are straightforward. In one instance, when they stood in the location specified by a supposed witness to the crime, they found that they could not possibly have observed the crime from that location: there was a building in the way. A very old building. Other times, they find that people are less guarded in their answers than they were at the time, or more open with an enthusiastic college student than they were with police and prosecutors. In some cases, the student journalists have not only demonstrated the innocence of one prisoner, they have built a case against the real murderer.

This latter methodology is the focus of Alvarez’ claims – and the reason she is subpoenaing students’ notes and e-mails, and their grades. Protess claims the students have the same legal protection as working journalists. Alvarez claims they are students carrying out a class exercise; their notes and sources are not protected.

Students paid for an interviewee’s cab fare to a bus stop – they have a receipt for $60 – but Alvarez claims this functioned as a payoff, with the interviewee splitting the fare with the cab driver and buying drugs with his half. Protess says it’s unlikly that anyone would implicate himself in a murder for a share of $60.

Research shows that may death row inmates are there in part because of shoddy police work, flawed prosecutions, or inadequate defense. A variety of Innocence programs have sprung up around the nation, staffed with volunteers, pro bono attorneys, and often using student workers. If Alvarez’ subpoena is upheld, it will certainly have an impact on the number of volunteers available for the work, and on the methods they can use.

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