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Lawyers representing the university recently conducted a forensic analysis of five computers — two of them at Protess's home, the other three at the offices of the Medill Innocence Project Protess ran — to determine what information the Innocence Project had turned over to the lawyers for Anthony McKinney. McKinney is a convicted killer who Protess and his students from the Innocence Project concluded, after a three-year investigation, did not commit the murder for which McKinney's been a prisoner since 1978.
According to the university, what those computers revealed was devastating. Northwestern said in a statement April 6 that "the review uncovered considerable evidence that Protess: authorized the release of all student memos to Mr. McKinney’s lawyers despite his repeated claims to the contrary; knew from the very beginning that doing so waived any claim of privilege; and repeatedly provided false and misleading information to the lawyers and the dean..... In sum, Protess knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions. He also misrepresented facts about these matters to students, alumni, the media and the public. He caused the University to take on what turned out to be an unsupportable case and unwittingly misrepresent the situation both to the Court and to the State."
Protess has allowed that his memory failed him occasion as to what he shared with McKinney's lawyers several years ago, but he insists he did not deliberately try to deceive anyone, and that the computer search turned up only trivial differences in the language of a few emails as written and as he'd described them to lawyers.
Whatever McKinney's attorneys — from Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions — got from Protess, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez wanted too — and she also wanted the working materials of Protess's students who'd investigated the McKinney case. Attorneys hired to represent Medill and Protess against Alvarez's subpoena for those materials eventually concluded that Protess had greatly understated the amount and nature of the material he'd given McKinney's lawyers. A new set of attorneys led by former U.S. attorney Anthony Valukas began digging into Protess's story, and into his computers. Last month Protess was told he could not teach his spring semester class, and last week the university released a long statement lauding the Innocence Project but damning Protess, its founder.
Protess, formally on leave from Medill, protested Wednesday that the Valukas investigation "was completely lacking in transparency." Among the areas a review team not beholden to the university might look into, he said, is the question of whether Lavine has acted against him out of vengence. Protess recalled that three years ago he played a leading role in the episode remembered by Medill faculty as Quotegate. Lavine was accused of inventing an enthusiastic student quote that he used in an article for the Medill alumni magazine. Supposedly a junior said about a marketing class, "I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken." But only five juniors were taking the class, and all of them denied saying that.
Protess was one of three faculty members to sign a letter telling Lavine that ""it would be unconscionable to maintain faculty silence on such a widely covered public issue." The university, in my judgment if not its own, brushed the matter under the rug.
But although Medill professors frequently recall Quotegate in their endless discussions of the mess Protess is in, my soundings suggest that few if any buy the idea that Lavine acted in retaliation. When Alvarez decided to attack Medill's most celebrated professor, I'm told Lavine stood with him until he stood against him.
Here's a recent column of mine offering an overview of the McKinney case and its effects on Northwestern.
And here's the entire announcement Protess sent me calling for an independent review.
David Protess, Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University and President of the fledgling Chicago Innocence Project, called today for an independent review of the Medill Innocence Project and his actions as its director, saying the results of the review should be made public.
Since last October, three former federal prosecutors have been investigating the innocence project at the behest of Northwestern officials. Their report has remained secret, though Provost Daniel Linzer and Dean John Lavine revealed portions of it at a private meeting of the Medill faculty — from which Protess was excluded. According to sources at the meeting, the provost and dean showed a dozen or so redacted email messages from the more than a thousand exchanged during an investigation of a wrongful conviction case involving Anthony McKinney.
No students, alumni or senior faculty were interviewed by the former prosecutors, who now are partners at Jenner & Block, a firm hired by Northwestern to respond to a subpoena issued by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
"The former prosecutors' review was completely lacking in transparency," Protess said. "I will participate fully in any independent review that makes its findings available to the public." Protess added that if the university is unwilling to cooperate, he will publicly release all 26,600 "hits" from the imaged hard drives of his work and home computers to help the review team decide whether any improprieties occurred during the reporting of the McKinney case.
Protess said the independent review team should be chosen by Northwestern's Faculty Senate and ideally include representation from students, alums and professors, as well as at least one director of a journalism innocence project and a professional organization of journalists, such as Investigative Reporters & Editors.
Among the questions the review team might address:
1. Did Protess knowingly mislead the university during the litigation surrounding the McKinney case or others? Was his conduct inconsistent with widely accepted standards for investigative reporting or administering an innocence project in a university setting?
2. Did Dean Lavine suspend Protess from teaching and replace him as director of the Medill Innocence Project in retaliation for Protess's acknowledged role in exposing the dean's alleged fabrication of quotes in a magazine article? Did the suspension violate university rules and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) guidelines?
3. Did Provost Linzer have a conflict-of-interest in deciding a matter in which his spouse is the Associate Director of the Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, whose handling of documents from Protess was a hotly contested issue in the McKinney case? Was former U. S. Attorney Anton R. Valukas, the head of the Jenner & Block investigative team, biased because of his many affiliations with the Law School? Was Northwestern's General Counsel, Thomas Cline, a law school alumnus and donor, similarly biased?
Protess is on leave from Northwestern to establish the Chicago Innocence Project, a nonprofit investigative reporting group whose mission is to expose and remedy the problem of wrongful convictions.