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Northwestern University Journalism Professor Launches Innocence Project

CHICAGO – A Northwestern University journalism professor whose students are credited with helping to free more than 10 innocent men from prison including death row is taking a leave of absence from the school to launch a non-profit.

David Protess will go on leave for the spring quarter to work on the Chicago Innocence Project, a reporting organization that he says will draw students from a variety of Chicago-area universities, not just Northwestern.

“I want to have a mix of students from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds and life experience,” Protess said Tuesday. “The idea would be to create reporting teams from students from different places toward a common end, and that is exposing wrongful convictions.”

Students will be able to apply for an internship with the Chicago Innocence Project for a quarter, he said.

Protess had been director of Northwestern’s Medill Innocence Project, whose students have helped to prove that more than 10 Illinois inmates were wrongfully convicted, including several on death row, since 1996. Their work also is credited with prompting then-Gov. George Ryan to empty the state’s death row in 2003, re-igniting a national debate on the death penalty and leading to the end of capital punishment in Illinois.

But the Innocence Project’s recent investigation of Anthony McKinney, who is serving a life sentence for the 1978 murder of a security guard, has brought scrutiny of the students and their reporting methods. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has subpoenaed the students’ notes and grades, suggesting that students may have received better grades from Protess for uncovering evidence of the man’s innocence.

Protess and his students have vigorously denied those allegations, and the case is still working its way through the court system.

Northwestern announced earlier this month that Protess would no longer teach the investigative journalism class connected to the innocence project. Alan Cubbage, vice president for University Relations, said in a statement that Protess will have no faculty responsibilities during his leave and that another professor will replace him at the Medill Innocence Project.

Protess said he’ll revisit his future plans after seeing how things go during the quarter, and he stressed that he still plans to work with Northwestern students.

“I will never turn my back on Medill or Northwestern,” he said. “I’ve been loyal to them for 30 years. I will always bleed purple and white.”

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