CHICAGO – A renowned Northwestern University journalism professor whose students helped free wrongfully convicted prison inmates—but whose methods have been under scrutiny—will retire this year, the school announced Monday.
The retirement of David Protess is effective Aug. 31, according to a university statement. No details were offered.
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 Illinois’ death row in 2003, re-igniting a national debate on the death penalty and leading to the end of capital punishment in the state eight years later.
But in 2009, the methods of Protess’ students were first questioned as Cook County prosecutors alleged that students paid off a witness in an effort to prove a man was wrongly convicted. Prosecutors, who also alleged students misrepresented themselves, later subpoenaed documents including Protess’ records, student memos and grades, suggesting that students may have received better grades from Protess for uncovering evidence.
Protess, who has been on leave from his classes, and his students have vigorously denied the allegations, calling them a “smear campaign” by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
Earlier this year Northwestern announced Protess would not be teaching investigative journalism for the upcoming quarter. The university publicly criticized Protess, saying he had “knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions” to Northwestern, its lawyers and the dean of the journalism school.
In an e-mail on Monday to The Associated Press, Protess said that he retired to become president of the Chicago Innocence Project, an investigative journalism nonprofit. He said offices for the organization opened in downtown Chicago on Monday.
He declined to comment further.
Protess joined the Northwestern faculty in 1981 and held several teaching titles until he was promoted to professor in 1992, university officials said.
University officials did not release details about Protess’ retirement.
“The work done by students who took classes that worked on Innocence Project cases contributed to the exoneration of 11 wrongfully convicted men, five of whom were on death row,” the statement said. “That work will continue.”