Sunday, March 28, 2010

Meet David Protess

David Protess is one of the early advocates for Hank Skinner.

Protess teaches an investigative journalism class at Northwestern University. As part of that class, his students are assigned a crime to investigate. The investigations are sometimes so complex and so thorough that they pass from one class to the next. Should the students' journalistic investigation indicate that an innocent person is being prosecuted, has already been convicted, or faces execution, their work is turned over to the Medill Innocence Project to allow the case to be pursued through the court system.

Not coincidently, David Protess is founder and director of the Medill Innocence Project. That project too is associated with Northwestern University. Protess has long realized the propriety and wisdom of creating a strict division between teaching investigative journalism and pursuing legal cases to assist those wrongfully accused or convicted.  More on that in a moment.

In a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (found on the Hank Skinner web site), Protess explains how he became involved with the Hank Skinner case.

Wanting to learn first-hand about the case, I had investigative reporting students from our Project make two trips to Pampa, Texas in 1999-2000. After interviewing more than a dozen witnesses, all on videotape or audiotape, they returned with additional reservations about Mr. Skinner's guilt.

The state's star witness, Andrea Reed, admitted she had lied when she testified at Mr. Skinner's trial that he had made guilty knowledge statements about the crime and had threatened her. Instead, Ms. Reed swore she had been intimidated by the authorities into making up a false story against Mr. Skinner.

The students turned up evidence that pointed to Robert Donnell as a possible culprit. They identified unseemly background, conflicts of interest, and unusually high payments to Harold Comer, Hank Skinner's court-appointed attorney.

When I first learned that Mr. Comer had been the District Attorney of Gray County before resigning and being appointed to represent Mr. Skinner at his capital murder trial, I frankly was stunned. Having reviewed more than a hundred murder cases, I had never seen a conflict this blatant. But when I subsequently learned about Mr. Comer's woeful performance at trial and during sentencing (by reading the transcripts and from my student-journalists' investigation), my surprise turned to outrage.

I continue to find it deeply disturbing that two trips to Pampa by college students turned up more exculpatory evidence than was developed by Mr. Skinner's defense attorney, the former D.A. And, with his client's life on the line, that same lawyer was unable to rebut allegations about Mr. Skinner's past at the sentencing hearing because he had prosecuted his client for those very crimes. Beyond guilt or innocence, this is an unprecedented violation of the principles of fairness that are mandated by the State of Texas and our nation's Constitution.

Protess informed the board that he has long been willing to have the Medill Innocent Project bear the cost of testing the DNA. He closed by asking them to commute the death sentence so that the DNA can be tested.

They declined by a vote of 7-0.

David Protess is in the news as part of another story which will come to boil this year. In 2003, his students began what turned into a three-year journalistic investigation into the conviction of Anthony McKinney.  McKinney had been convicted of shooting a security guard in 1978. The students uncovered interesting information about that case, turned it over to the Medill Innocence Project, which in turn began making waves.

Those waves attracted some special attention from the Cook County State Attorney.  Anita Alvarez slapped Protess with a subpoena demanding all student notes plus [insert dramatic music here] all student grades

“We’re not trying to delve into areas of privacy or grades,” she said through a spokesperson, “Our position is that they’ve engaged in an investigative process, and without any hostility, we’re seeking to get all of the information they’ve developed, just as detectives and investigators turn over.” 

As you might imagine, Protess has not been quick to respond. In fact, he insists he will face contempt rather than respond, and use that contempt finding to take the case to a higher court. It looks as if neither side is going to back down, and this could turn into a big issue this year.

In addition to his claim that he cannot respond to the subpoena without violating privacy laws, Protess is concerned that the subpoena is but the point of a spear. He fears the action is intended to discourage students everywhere from looking into possible shennanigans of law enforcement and prosectution, thereby weakening the efforts of The Medill Innocence Project and some fifty other similar projects.

The Medill Innocence Project has been particularly pesky.  I quote from their web site.

Protess and his journalism students have uncovered evidence that freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row. The Project's work, which has been featured on "60 Minutes," "48 Hours," "Dateline NBC" and the front pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post, has been cited for stimulating a national debate on the death penalty.

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan credited the Project's investigations, particularly in freeing death row inmate Anthony Porter in 1999, with helping provide the impetus for his moratorium on the death penalty in January 2000 and his subsequent decision to grant clemency to all death row inmates before leaving office in January 2003.

One of the four prisoners whom the governor exonerated outright, Aaron Patterson, had been the subject of the Project's investigations since its inception. The exoneration came on the basis of new evidence of his innocence -- and the guilt of two other men in the crime for which Patterson was accused -- developed by Protess and his students.

"A system that depends on young journalism students is flawed," Ryan said in his speech granting the blanket clemency, during which he also praised Protess for being a teacher who has "poured his heart and soul" into helping his students free innocent men.

Rather than support the effort of such students, Anita Alvarez would like to see their grades.

24 Mar 2010

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