University Accuses Medill Prof of Misleading in McKinney Case

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Medill Innocent Project former professor David Protess is teaching "underground." (Credit: Northwestern)

Northwestern University has accused Medill Innocence Project professor David Protess of misleading the university about information related to the Anthony McKinney case.  McKinney was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 after he was convicted of murder.

Protess has led the project, which tasks Northwestern University journalism students with looking into possible “wrongful convictions,” since 1999. Medill Innocence Project students started looking into McKinney’s conviction in 2003.

As iMediaEthics reported in November 2009, prosecutors issued subpoenas for some of the students’ information, work and reporting on the case of Anthony McKinney.  At the time, Protess argued that the Illinois shield law protects his students’ work from being turned over to prosecutors. A few months later, media outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post signed a brief against the subpoena.

Northwestern University claimed last month that Protess “lied about what information was shared with McKinney’s attorneys.”  The university’s claims came after it had a law firm investigate “information provided by Protess to Lavine and University attorneys.” The university’s statement, in part, reads:

“The review uncovered numerous examples of Protess knowingly making false and misleading statements to the dean, to University attorneys, and to others. Such actions undermine the integrity of Medill, the University, the Innocence Project, students, alumni, faculty, the press, the public, the State and the Court.”

According to the university, Protess “altered a 2007 email sent” to McKinney’s lawyers before giving a copy of it to the university. Protess explained the changes to the e-mail as saying “the original wording did not reflect what he had meant.”

The university alleged that Protess gave more information to McKinney’s lawyers then he told the university he did. For example, the university stated that Protess gave “all student memos to Mr. McKinney’s lawyers” and “that doing so waived any claim of privilege.”  The university also claims Protess “repeatedly provided false and misleading information to the lawyers and the dean” including by altering a Dec. 2009 e-mail.

The university added:

“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.”


According to Northwestern University, eleven people have been freed from prison sentences because of the project’s work.

Protess “was placed on leave for the spring quarter” and reportedly agreed to stop teaching at Northwestern, the Tribune reported.

However, he is currently teaching “underground” at an undisclosed Northwestern University location, the Chicago Tribune recently reported.

Protess Let 2 Students Lie About Identity

Besides the accusations of misleading officials, Protess has been accused of violating ethics standards because he let two students misrepresent themselves while investigating for the project, the Tribune noted.

Protess admitted that he did allow undercover reporting by his students twice but that it’s “a technique we will use infrequently…if there is no other way to get the story and there is a higher social good.” Protess reportedly added that the two instances weren’t for interviewing purposes but rather to get information like contact information for other people.

The Tribune noted that “more than 30 journalists and professors from around the country”  have backed Protess by signing a petition for an “independent investigation” of the charges against Protess. Chicago Reader added that the statement calls the university’s “handling of David Protess” similar to a “retaliatory campaign.” The petition letter can be read here on Poynter.

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University Accuses Medill Prof of Misleading in McKinney Case

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