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Judge orders Medill student journalists to turn over 500 e-mails

Updated: September 7, 2011 4:58PM



A Cook County judge Wednesday ordered Northwestern University to turn over roughly 500 e-mails student journalists exchanged with former Medill Innocence Project head David Protess detailing their probe into whether the wrong man was put behind bars for a three-decade-old Harvey murder.

The students were working under the direction of attorneys at the university law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and were “acting as investigators in a criminal procedure,” Judge Diane Gordon Cannon said.

“Although a book may be written or an article may be published ... the information is subject to rules of discovery,” Cannon said.

Northwestern had argued that the e-mails were protected under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act and did not have to tender the materials to prosecutors.

Northwestern has 10 days to file an appeal.

Despite the judge’s decision on the McKinney case, Northwestern is “pleased” that Cannon said journalism students — in most cases — are protected under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act, spokeswoman Mary Jane Twohey said.

“We await the judge’s written opinion and will evaluate our options,” Twohey said.

Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack said Wednesday’s ruling was a welcome relief after a “frustrating” two years of legal wrangling on the case.

Save for the e-mails, Northwestern has turned in materials from the students related to McKinney after the prosecutors filed a subpoena.

But Stack noted that the original notes, memos and transcripts students had compiled were destroyed.

“The only reason we got what we got was because [investigators] searched hard drives of the Innocence Project’s computers,” she said.

McKinney remains in prison for the 1978 murder of Donald Lundahl while the state’s attorney’s office investigates the Innocence Project’s claims of his innocence.

Prosecutors have questioned Northwestern journalism students’ tactics on the McKinney case, accusing them of, among other things, paying for an interview. Protess retired from Northwestern last month — just after announcing his plans to step down amid the accusations and questions about his truthfulness in dealing with university lawyers in connection with the criminal case.

In an e-mail Wednesday, Protess said he was “disappointed” with Cannon’s ruling.

Medill students’ investigation in the McKinney case began in 2003 and the Center’s involvement did not begin until 2005, according to Protess.

“The facts show that my students investigated the McKinney case for two years with no involvement by defense lawyers,” he said.

“Every major reporting development in the case, including the recantations of the state’s witnesses and the confession of the alternative suspect, happened before the Center on Wrongful Convictions became McKinney’s lawyers. At no point did my students take direction from lawyers. Every reporting decision was made within the Medill team before students conducted interviews.”



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