Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The state's attorney's office presented its case Tuesday for getting lots more information out of Medill about the investigation by that school's Innocence Project into a 1978 murder of a security guard in Harvey. But if getting to the bottom of the long-past murder is what's uppermost in the office's mind, that's hard to make out from its 54-page filing.
Which asserts: "The People [that is, the state's attorney's office] are still investigating and have spent two years and hundreds of hours determining the importance, veracity, and credibility" of materials turned over by Medill that support McKinney's claim of innocence. "Severe credibility issues and a multitude of inconsistencies have arisen, necessitating...full disclosure of the materials that the State has subpoenaed."
These are materials that professor David Protess, head of the Innocence Project, insists have nothing to do with McKinney's guilt or innocence and are none of the state's business — not just all tapes of all interviews but the students' notes, their emails, even their grades. "The State must be allowed to examine not only the evidence submitted but also the circumstances surrounding the manner in which the evidence was obtained, including the interest, bias and motive of those who created the evidence," said Tuesday's filing, a response to Medill's motion to quash the subpoena the state's attorney issued in April. Circuit Judge Dianne Cannon scheduled a hearing for January 11.
Protess's students spent three years investigating the murder of Donald Lundahl, a crime for which Anthony McKinney, a teenager when it occurred, has spent the past 31 years in prison. The students' findings were eventually turned over to McKinney's lawyer, who went to court two years ago seeking McKinney's freedom on the grounds that he didn't do it.
The state's attorney's filing contains some intriguing allegations and observations: such as that students used a subterfuge to pay witness Tony Drakes for a videotaped statement, giving a taxi driver $60 to drive Drakes to his nearby home afterward, with instructions that he keep $20 and give $40 to Drakes when he got out; and that Drakes has recanted the statement;
That Tony Drakes's nephew Francis Drakes gave the students a statement in which he recalled Tony showing up the night of Lundahl's murder and announcing that he'd just shot somebody — but that Francis was eight years old at the time;
That Tony recalled the Medill students who interviewed him were "snotty and manipulative" and he decided to "play games with the kids"; while Francis spent most of his interview "flirting" with three female students and made up a story just to keep them around.
The state filing also devotes a lot of space to arguing that Illinois' reporter's privilege doesn't protect the Medill students from the state's subpoena because they didn't meet the law's definition of a reporter. Project Innocence students don't report because they don't publish; instead, they conduct "criminal investigations."
The big problem with the position state's attorney Anita Alvarez has taken is that evidence speaks for itself. If what matters to her is justice — which would be getting McKinney out of prison if, and only if, he didn't kill Lundahl — the provenance of the evidence that he's innocent, and the possible biases of the parties who assembled it, are beside the point. If, after two years of dutiful assessment of that evidence, Alvarez has decided it's so worthless that Medill, Protess, and the Innocence Project need to be taught a lesson, then she should say so.
But her office is saying nothing of the sort. I spoke Tuesday evening to Alvarez's spokesperson, Sally Daly. "They were saying Mr. [Tony] Drakes could have been a possible suspect in the murder," she explained. "If that’s the case, we need to investigate any possible bit of evidence that exists. This is not some witch hunt or attack on the Innocence Project. We don’t have any evidence other than [Drake] recanted a statement he made to the students. There's no other corroborative witness other than a kid who was eight years old at the time the murder occurred."
I asked her if she actually thought Protess was holding back evidence that would incriminate Drakes.
"We don’t know!" she said. "Why are we being left in the dark? That’s why we need to examine every possible bit of evidence that may be out there that could lead to whether Mr. McKinney is innocent or guilty."
Says the filing, "Various news publications and columnists have questioned the State's Attorney's motivation for issuing the subpoena in the present case, and, without any basis, have declared that the State's Attorney is somehow retaliating against the Innocence Project...or journalism students at Northwestern. Nothing could be further from the truth....In an era of shrinking public resources, in other cases, such Innocence Projects have oft performed a valuable role in gathering proof of exoneration and actual innocence. However, if one engages in that role, it must always and in each case, adhere to high ethical standards..."
Which is worse, a subpoena or a lecture?
UPDATE: Protess denies paying Tony Drakes for his video.