Journalism Professor Who Helped Free 5 Innocent Men from Death Roll Has Been Sacked

Human Rights

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Days after the death penalty was abolished in Illinois, one of the key people who helped prove the innocence of men on the state’s death row—thus setting into motion the political action that led to abolition—has lost his job.

David Protess, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for 29 years, was dismissed this week, reportedly for no official reason. As the head of Northwestern’s Innocence Project, Protess devoted himself to teaching journalism students investigative skills that, literally, had life-or-death impact. Under his direction, students uncovered evidence that saved five men from death row and at least another six from prison. While he will retain his position at the Innocence Project, his expulsion from the journalism school is a travesty—and a major loss for the countless students inspired by the work he pioneered.

The firing seems to have been rather cold for a professor who attracted so much admiration for his work. According to the Daily Northwestern, “Medill Dean John Lavine told Protess about the decision in an e-mail Monday, Protess said. No reason was given, and there have not yet been any conversations about the future, he added.”

For the past few years, Protess and his students have been in the crosshairs of the Cook County DA’s office, which, forced to grapple with the fallout of Protess’s investigations when it would have preferred to keep its role in sentencing innocent people to die in prison under wraps, finally decided to begin an intimidation campaign against Northwestern. According to a long feature in Chicago Magazine, when confronted with the prospect of admitting to the innocence of Anthony McKinney, a man who has sat in prison for more than 30 years for a murder he did not commit, States Attorney Anita Alvarez “turned the tables on Protess, challenging the motives and ethics of him and his students.”

In a court filing, her office has given voice to deeply unflattering, sometimes personal accusations: that some students may have paid a witness to recant; that other students “flirted” with witnesses, in effect, to persuade them to make incriminating statements; and that students may have been so driven to get an A that they twisted or suppressed evidence to suit their cause of freeing McKinney.

Former students have jumped to the defense of their old professor. One is my friend and former colleague Ari Berman, who wrote this in 2009:

I took Protess’s class in the spring of 2004 and worked on McKinney’s case. The experience became the highlight of my time at Medill. My team and I were just twenty-one and twenty-two at the time, thrust into unfamiliar environs on the South Side of Chicago and elsewhere, trying to ferret out the facts of a murder that occurred before any of us were born. David’s class, more than any other, taught me how to be a reporter, how to make make difficult decisions in a quick and decisive manner and how to always strive for justice and empathy in my work.

I was never a student of Protess. But I have known his name for years. His work made me want to be a journalist—and I remember writing to him to say so. (I would love to post his response, but it was back in my Hotmail days, which I no longer have access to.) While ultimately the people who stand to lose the most from his departure are the prisoners whose innocence claims might go uninvestigated, there is no way to know how many young people who may have been inspired in his classroom—or like me, from afar—will lose out. Just as we need journalists devoted to the cause of truth-telling, we need teachers devoted to the cause of justice. Northwestern just lost one, and it lost big.

This article was made possible by the Wallace Global Fund.

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