Sunday, October 25, 2009

Legally Fight For Justice, Have Prosecutors Subpoena Your Grades

(originally posted 10/21. updated and moved to the top)

If this isn't among the most blatant attempts by government officials to harrass and intimidate private citizens, I don't know what would be. Note that this occurs in Cook County, Illinois, wherein sits the city of Chicago.

After spending three years investigating the conviction of a Harvey man accused of killing a security guard with a shotgun blast in 1978, journalism students at Northwestern University say they have uncovered new evidence that proves his innocence.

Their efforts helped win a new day in court for Anthony McKinney, who has spent 31 years in prison for the slaying. But as they prepare for that crucial hearing, prosecutors seem to have focused on the students and teacher who led the investigation for the school's internationally acclaimed Medill Innocence Project.

The Cook County state's attorney subpoenaed the students' grades, notes and recordings of witness interviews, the class syllabus and even e-mails they sent to each other and to professor David Protess of the university's Medill School of Journalism.
A basic tenet of "social justice" would seem to me to be that innocent people should not languish in jails. It's a shame that some can't accept even that minimal standard.

Richard O'Brien, the lawyer representing the university, said it's an unwarranted fishing expedition that focuses on the messenger -- rather than on the possibility that an innocent man has spent more than three decades behind bars. Prosecutors, he said, "seem to be peeved" at the Innocence Project for uncovering a wrongful conviction...

Since the Innocence Project began in 1999, Protess and his students have uncovered evidence that helped free 11 innocent men, according to a class Web site.

I hope this does not deter them.

Update, 10/25/09: Read more here:

“Every time the government starts attacking the messenger as opposed to the message, it can have a chilling effect,” said Barry C. Scheck, a pioneer of the Innocence Project in New York, …”

Fox News, anyone?


Steve USMA '85 said...

Being a Devil's advocate here, what if student's grades were directly tied to the value of information they uncovered towards proving the man innocent? Would this not be an incentive for a student to possibly fudge his witness' testimony a bit. Possibly lead the witness to a conclusion that the witness couldn't come to 31 years ago. We can believe a cop can coerce a witness because he wants the 'collar' in his file. Why can't we believe a student might do the same to get an 'A' in a class. Seems to me like a logical thing the prosecutor should examine in preparing for the hearing.

Mind you, I am concerned about the legality of a fishing expedition but I can see a reason to submit these subpoenas. The prosecutor has a duty to evaluate the source of the evidence.

Also, the argument the State is using that these are not journalists and thus not subject to the protection laws seems valid. These are students and thus by definition not professional journalists. If they are covered by the protections, then all anyone has to do is to claim they are going to write an article and they don't have to hand over evidence.

I think the author of your linked article has a point. But I think it is not as cut and dried as he makes it seem.

Darren said...

For whom must one work before one is considered a "professional" journalist? If I understood your remark, you were referring to shield laws enacted to further the ends of the 1st Amendment, but the 1st Amendment doesn't refer to "journalists". It refers to the freedom of "the press"--which, at the time, included pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, and would most assuredly cover bloggers :-)

I don't think the students' grades is fair game, any more than their political affiliation would be. What matters is the quality of their "detective" work, which should be ascertained independently of their academic work.

I wouldn't tell a parent the grades I got in any math course at school, and I have nothing (at all!) of which to be ashamed. My grades in math class are not relevant when discussing *their* kid's grades.

Steve USMA '85 said...

As to your first point, my point is that anyone under criminal investigation could say that they are writing an article, publishing a pamphlet like Thomas Paine, or some such and under that false flag not turn over evidence. It is a matter of how loose we want freedom of the press to be. I'm not sure where the line is, I'm just saying that these students are much closer to the gray area then a reporter for the Chicago Tribune would be.

The prosecutors find that the student who received an 'A' for uncovering the eyewitness who changed his testimony about seeing McKinney shot the man coerced the eyewitness. Promised him the police would get a black eye if he invents the beating by police story. Then the other student who also received an 'A' was found to use leading questioning to get the gang members to take a vague initial memory and convert it to solid recollection of chasing McKinney. Again, the gang members could also be using this to give Chicago police a black eye.

Now, two of the 'A' students findings have credibility issues. The prosecutors then find that all the substantial evidence came from students who received 'A's. I would say Hmmmm...could be coincidence, but it might not be.

If McKinney is set free and it is later found to be because a number of students conspired to get witnesses to paint their picture of that night, wouldn't the public be asking why the prosecutors didn't uncover this conspiracy? Yes, the prosecutors may go to the source witnesses to verify the new 'evidence' but what if the student's tainted the evidence by their own bias or desire to get a good grade? The witness tells the same story they told the students, but the story isn't the truth.

Finally, your last point is specious. Your past grades will not be affected by whether or not you tell them to the parent. You do not get a better grade on your college transcript by either padding your high school student's grades nor lowering them.

A second point to your last point. If my child receives a 'C' and I as a professional mathematician review my child's work and find it not wanting, I might have an issue with your qualifications. You grade something wrong that I know is correct gives me grounds to challenge your competence to you and/or the school administration. At that point, while for legal issues I may not get to peruse your personel file, I would hope that someone in the adminatration would like at your qualifications. Should have before you were hired but maybe something slipped by someone. You got straight D's in High School algebra and barely passed college required math to become a teacher. Maybe your grades are relevant when discussing *my* kid's grades - you aren't competent to understand correct work.