Phi Beta Cons

Protess Retires

The New York Times has the story.

I’ve criticized Medill for claiming protection for the Innocence Project under Illinois’s journalist-shield law. I’m not a fan of shield laws in general, but in this case, I wasn’t even sure the claim was warranted: The primary purpose of the Innocence Project is to free the wrongly convicted, not to report information to readers. Many other Innocence Projects are run out of law schools rather than journalism schools.

The new story has some information that supports this point:

It was an oddity of the Innocence Project that students rarely wrote their own articles (until 2008, when the project put them online). Instead, the students, sometimes working with private investigators, would produce one-page reports about their findings, then be partnered with well-known journalists to bring new information to light. The lack of direct journalistic output concerned at least one former dean.

“It was always kind of fuzzy whether he was engaged in journalism or a kind of guerrilla social justice law operation where the ends justified the means,” said Michael Janeway, a dean at Medill from 1989 to 1996 who is now a professor of journalism at Columbia. “David was not totally irresponsible. He was zealot in pursuit of a cause, a cause you could not question.”

. . .

In September 2009, Karen Daniel, [an accused man’s] lead counsel, made an explosive admission to university investigators: she received “a significant amount of materials” from Mr. Protess’s students. That would negate the journalist’s privilege that Mr. Protess had claimed [because journalists don’t typically work hand-in-hand with defense counsel in cases they cover]. . .  .


Mr. Protess said then that it had been several years since the events and that he could not remember what he had and had not turned over. But in a search of Innocence Project computers, the university turned up an e-mail from Mr. Protess to his assistant in 2006 that indicated the students’ reporting memos had been shared with the defense.

“My position about memos, as you know, is that we share everything with the legal team, and don’t keep copies,” he wrote, referring to Mr. McKinney’s lawyers.

But the copy of the e-mail he provided to university lawyers was altered to read, “My position about memos, as you know, is that we don’t keep copies.”

Mr. Protess said that he altered the e-mail to reflect the actual practice of the Innocence Project as he remembered it.


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