The age of innocence is over | On Media | Chicago Reader

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The age of innocence is over

Did Willie Donald do it? The Medill Innocence Project no longer cares.


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The Medill Innocence Project shared court documents with Times of Northwest Indiana reporter Sarah Tompkins—an Innocence Project alum who'd become aware of Donald's case while working on an unrelated case for Protess. Tompkins wrote several stories on Donald and, like Serritella, made a video of Williams repudiating her identification of Donald.

Serritella's video is the centerpiece of the material that Donald wants Northwestern to release. I asked Protess to comment, and he e-mailed me: "While I was still at Medill, Associate General Counsel Amy Mayber seized our file on the Donald case, including everything from students' reporting memos to police reports and trial transcripts. I asked for the file to be returned so we could continue our reporting, but to no avail.

"This is yet another overreaction by university counsel to State's Attorney Alvarez's subpoena, and it makes no sense since Mr. Donald's case is in Indiana and our relationship with the prosecutors has been cooperative."

The new director of the Medill Innocence Project is Alec Klein, and on his watch the project seems less interested in freeing the innocent than separating itself from the David Protess era.

Mayber had no comment.

I arranged a phone conversation with Donald primarily to ask him why he'd written me. Did Protess put him up to it, to embarrass Medill? No, said Donald, it was at the suggestion of a Denver man named David Lynch. Four years ago, Lynch's daughter Eimear was a Medill senior working on Donald's case. Today she's an editor in New York City but she hasn't put Donald behind her. Moreover, her father now champions Donald's cause. This February her father wrote Nesbitt on Donald's behalf.

"Our whole family has formed a relationship with this gentle, sad man, who had his hopes raised by the Medill students and staff, and cannot understand how he is quite suddenly abandoned without any communication from Northwestern," wrote David Lynch. "I am writing to appeal to you to find a way to release his file so that his attorney and team can continue to work on this case. I understand there are legal concerns, but I think they should be over-ridden in this case by a moral imperative not to let this injustice, which has already gone on much too long, continue."

Nesbitt replied to this e-mail: "I'm afraid the issues are quite substantial, apart from FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] considerations, and there is no getting around them," she explained. "As I explained to Eimear, MIP case files comprise material that was gathered during a journalistic investigation. Medill does its utmost to protect the integrity and legal privilege of that journalistic work. For those important reasons we have adopted a policy that MIP files are not shared outside Medill."

It's a reasonable policy. Northwestern originally fought Alvarez's subpoena on the grounds that the state's attorney was asking for reporters' work product; a principle looks a lot sturdier if it's maintained even when it would be lovely to set it aside. The Times of Northwest Indiana is taking the same position: Donald's attorney, Thomas Vanes, asked for the video of Tompkins's interview with Williams and was told to settle for the portion the Times posted on its website.

There's also the question of how much good the file would do Donald, whose petition for postconviction relief is scheduled to be heard in July. "For the prosecutors, Medill's reputation is such now that nothing they produce will stand on its own," Vanes told me last week. That includes the video of Williams recanting. The prosecutors "are actually willing to listen, and they'd be willing to listen to Rhonda, but not filtered through Medill and not filtered even by me," Vanes said. "They want to talk to the woman themselves—as do I. I'd like to sit her down." The problem is that Williams moved to Florida and now can't be located. It's on Vanes, not the prosecutors, to find her, and he says a friend is down in Florida looking.

On April 20 David Lynch e-mailed Nesbitt: "I think a direct clear written communication to Timmy would be appropriate, important and indeed overdue. I hope you agree."

Apparently she did not.

But Medill has nothing to say to Donald that would lift his spirits. The new director of the Medill Innocence Project is Alec Klein, and on his watch the project seems less interested in freeing the innocent than separating itself from the Protess era. "We put a little logo up, 'In Pursuit of the Truth.' That's what we're after," Klein told me. "The ends do not justify the means. We're not keeping score about exonerations. We want to teach students how to do things well and properly." Instead of turning over its findings to anybody, the project now posts them on its website. And it doesn't dawdle: results of the most recent investigation to appear on the site were posted after ten weeks of work—compare that to the three years the old Medill Innocence Project spent on Donald. The site boasts "thousands of pages of public documents Medill students obtained."

So why not simply post the entire Donald file online? That would require Klein, who doesn't like to speak Protess's name, to vouch for his casework. "We're not taking up any of his old cases," Klein told me. "You know, several of them are problematic. I've received some phone calls and e-mails about [the Donald] case and I've referred them to the previous instructor. I don't know anything about the case."

"To me, the M.I.P. are sending mix messages," Donald recently wrote Lynch. (Lynch forwarded the letter to Nesbitt.) "On one hand, they want everyone to believe they are commited to helping vindicate those who have [been] wrongly convicted. Then, on the other hand, they are refusing to hand over crucial information that could exonerate me. I'm very disappointed that it ended this way."

Correction: an earlier version of this column incorrectly described a Medill Innocence Project investigation as the project's most recent. While the investigation is the most recent for which results are posted on the project's website, there is a more recent investigation underway."

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