EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern University has taken public its dispute with a journalism professor whose students are credited with helping free wrongfully convicted prison inmates, accusing him of misleading officials about his handling of a wrongful conviction investigation.
In a lengthy statement on Wednesday, the university said David Protess “knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions” to Northwestern, its lawyers and the dean of the journalism school. Protess has denied the allegations, calling them “blatantly false” and “malicious.”
The statement came after journalism dean John Lavine met with faculty to discuss recent university actions against Protess, including removing him as professor of his investigative journalism class for the spring quarter.
Protess and investigative reporting students with the Medill Innocence Project have helped free more than 10 innocent men from prison, including 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 eight years later to the end of capital punishment in Illinois.
The conflict with the university stems from an innocence project investigation into the case of Anthony McKinney, who’s serving a life sentence for the 1978 murder of a security guard. Students said they’ve uncovered evidence of McKinney’s innocence, and the case was turned over to lawyers with Northwestern’s law school, who asked a Cook County judge to take a fresh look at the case.
As part of their own investigation, Cook County prosecutors subpoenaed documents including Protess’ records, student memos and grades, suggesting that students may have received better grades from Protess for uncovering evidence of McKinney’s innocence. Protess and his students have vigorously denied those allegations.
The university contends that Protess knowingly withheld memos and notes from prosecutors while giving them to McKinney’s attorneys, and then misleading officials about doing so.
“Such actions undermine the integrity of Medill, the university, the Innocence Project, students, alumni, faculty, the press, the public, the State and the Court,” Alan Cubbage, vice president of university relations, said in a statement.
Protess dismissed the allegations, saying he couldn’t remember exactly what had been given to whom years ago, and he’s accused the university of making him a scapegoat for missteps made by other officials in the case.
“The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of blame to go around here, and I share it,” Protess told the (Evanston) Daily Northwestern. “But as in all complicated situations involving Northwestern University, when there is negative media attention, typically one person is assigned blame.”
Protess is currently on leave from both his classes and as director of the Innocence Project for the spring. He is establishing the Chicago Innocence Project, an investigative journalism non-profit he said will be run by students from across the area, not just Northwestern.