In the midst of a heated court battle over the rights of student journalists, 18 media organizations filed briefs on Monday morning in support of the Medill Innocence Project. Run by Professor David Protess as an undergraduate class in the Medill School of Journalism, the Project is fighting subpoenas by Cook County prosecutors.
Judge Diane Cannon accepted the amicus (friend of the court) brief filed by The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and other news organizations. In addition, a separate amicus brief by the Student Press Law Center was presented, emphasizing the protection of Medill student journalists under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act.
The Medill Innocence Project was founded in 1999, aiming to give undergraduate students hands-on experience in investigating wrongful convictions. Protess and his team of journalism students have discovered evidence that freed 11 men, five of them from death row.
Northwestern journalism students began investigating the case of Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of killing a security guard in 1978 and has been serving a sentence ever since, in the fall of 2003. The Project’s investigation led to discovery of an alternate suspect, convicted killer Anthony Drake.
In late 2008, Judge Cannon docketed McKinney’s case, as she found sufficient evidence for post-conviction petition to be considered. As the case progressed into “discovery” phase, Cook County prosecutors subpoenaed grades, notes and other information developed in the case of Anthony McKinney from Medill students in November 2009.
Northwestern attorney Richard O’Brien said that the students were investigative journalists and therefore protected under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act. The act gives news reporters the right to refuse to testify as to information or sources obtained during the newsgathering process.
The State Attorney’s Office filed claims that Medill students had bribed witnesses in the investigations of the McKinney case. The students and Protess deny these allegations.