Post-Protess era begins at the Medill Innocence Project

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Donald Watkins
  • Donald Watkins
The Medill Innocence Project on Tuesday published online the findings of a ten-week investigation overseen by Alec Klein — the professor who earlier this year replaced the deposed David Protess as head of the project.

The case that six of Klein's students spent ten weeks examining involves Donald Watkins, who in 2007 was convicted of murder and home invasion and sentenced to 56 years in prison. Project Innocence reports that Watkins was accused "of shooting a man in the head at point-blank range in a ramshackle apartment on Chicago’s West Side," and that the key witness against him testified that he "dragged her around the apartment with one hand, while holding a sawed-off shotgun in the other."

Yet in 2003 Watkins had been shot in the left arm, suffering "significant nerve damage near his elbow" and a "partially paralyzed" left hand. These injuries, calling into question his physical ability to do the things he was accused of doing, did not come out at his trial, the Medill students report.

No physical evidence linked Watkins to the crime, says Project Innocence, and the key witness was a "self-acknowledged drug addict" who according to police records made two trips to the hospital the night of the shooting and who has given conflicting accounts of what happened. The other witness who identified Watkins was seven years old.

Klein tells me that when he was handed Protess's investigative journalism class days before the past quarter was to begin, he had to cast around for a new case for his students. Staff investigator Sergio Serritella suggested Watkins, a case he'd heard about from defense attorney Daniel Coyne, a former police officer. Coyne did not — and does not — represent Watkins, but two years after the trial he'd received a note from courtroom reporter Stacey John, an acquaintance. The note said, in part, "There is a convicted murderer named Donald Watkins. I did the trial, that has always bothered me, because I truly don't believe he is the man who committed this crime. I always wanted to tell someone, but of course because how busy Cook County is, nobody listens."

At the time, Watkins was appealing his conviction — the appeal failed — and he had other attorneys. Coyne described to me his present involvement in the case as "peripheral," but he was curious to find out what the Innocence Project came up with.

All of that is posted on the project's website. Klein says it's the first time in the history of the project, which Protess founded in 1999, that findings have been made public in such a way. "My understanding is that in the past, the information students gathered was shared with the defense attorneys representing the prisoners whose cases they were looking into," Klein says. It's a practice that eventually got Protess into trouble: Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez accused Protess and his students of acting as partisan investigators, rather than as journalists, and in 2009 subpoenaed records in the Anthony McKinney investigation. Northwestern University's defense of Protess against the subpoenas led to the university accusing Protess of misleading the university's lawyer and to Protess and Medill parting company.

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