Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Curious Case of Anita Alvarez and the Medill Innocence Project Students

The battle of wills between the Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and the Illinois State's Attorney's office rages on.  The State wants the school's Innocence Project materials produced in connection with its investigation of the potential innocence of Anthony McKinney, who has spent decades in prison for a crime he claims that he didn't commit.  The State wants all of the Project's materials, and the Project claims such materials are shielded by a reporter's privilege and First Amendment protections.   The State submitted a lengthy brief on the issue earlier this week.   

The State doesn't exactly come out and say that the Project has purposely fabricated evidence.  Rather, it claims that the Project may have internal incentives that make it more likely that the evidence submitted by the Project is less than credible.  Those alleged incentives?  Innocence evidence = higher grade.  Therefore, the State seeks the course's grading criteria, course syllabus and other academic materials, and the students' grades in order to investigate the students for possible "bias, motive, or interest" that would cast doubt on the Project's evidence.  The State's brief claims that the receiving of a grade in exchange for investigating and preparing evidence is akin to being paid for investigating and preparing evidence.  Therefore, the argument goes, if it's reasonable to know how much a witness was paid to testify - say, to be an expert witness - then it's reasonable not only to ask whether a student was graded but what grade the student received.

My gut reaction to this theory:  Rubbish.  The State's Attorney's office should be ashamed for pursuing this drivel of an argument against one of the nation's best schools of journalism.

But as long as we're here, let's explore the argument.

Say the Project is compelled to turn over this information.  Say the following is discovered about the particular investigation at issue and the Project in general:
  • Students A and B worked on the project and received an A
  • Students D and E worked on the project and received a B
  • Students A and B were the primary producers of exculpatory evidence
  • Students D and E produced markedly less exculpatory evidence
  • The course syllabus states that one of the goals of the course is to investigate and develop exculpatory evidence in appropriate cases (After all, it is called "The Innocence Project")
  • The grading criteria includes a statement that, among other things, each student will be assessed in several areas including the scope and quality of the evidence produced by the student's investigation
If these facts turned out to be true, the State would argue:

See, the production of exculpatory evidence can be tied to better grades in the class.  Ergo, the exculpatory evidence at issue must be discounted and may very well have been fabricated in order to obtain such better grades.

Of course, the State would be arguing correlation, not cause-effect.  An alternative explanation?  Students A and B received better grades because they showed more skill and resourcefulness than Students C and D.   Students A and B were better investigators - better researchers, better interviewers, better synthesizers of the evidence uncovered - than Students C and D.  The result?  Students A and B produced more exculpatory evidence than C and D.

But so what?  This whole "bias" argument is a canard, and the State knows it.  Of course the students are biased - they are working on The Innocence Project, not The Guilty Project.  (The Guilty Project is the province of the State's Attorney. 

I may be giving the State's Attorney's office too much credit, but I think that it knows that it may get some of the other investigative materials but its attempt to get the grade-related material will fail.  But this only raises the level of stink.  It means that the attempt to look behind the academic curtain is solely intended to harass.  It's the State's shot across the bow. 

It doesn't even matter if the State's theory, that the students had an structural incentive to fudge evidence, is true, as Chicago Reader columnist Michael Miner has pointed out.  If the State can show that, in this case, some of the newly-generated exculpatory evidence is less than compelling or, for that matter, doubtful, then attack the evidence. The State can do this without flipping the students around, throwing them up against the wall, frisking them - that is, without publically humiliating them.  In fact, the State argues in its brief that it has already conducted lengthy investigations into some of the new evidence and has found some of it wanting.  This is a tacit admission, in my mind, that it doesn't need to look behind the academic curtain to challenge the evidence - but it wants to, nevertheless.  The State, being the State, sometimes has to remind us that it has police powers.  It can't help itself.  

However this turns out, two things I'm sure of:  The State's Attorney's office is making life-long enemies of the hard-working students and professors at a local, and preeminent, school of journalism - not a wise move.  And, the Medill/Alvarez stand off will find itself morphed into a Law & Order episode sometime soon.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to me that you concentrate on this issue of the grades being requested when I believe the State only request the grade from specific students for one specific semester for one specific class.

    I think the far more troubling issue is the evidence that the students may have paid off drug addicted witnesses to fabricate exculpatory statements concerning the man/men they are seeking to exonerate. Based upon what I have read, it sure sounds to me that, in some cases, Professor Protess and some of his students formulated their theory that inmate so and so was innocent and then they worked backward to concoct facts to support that theory. Why are they reluctant to turn over all of their investigative material?

    It is certainly a travesty when anyone spends even a minute behind bars for a crime that he or she did not commit but coming in at a close second is a guilty man getting sprung from jail based upon bogus and false information cooked up by some over zealous and ambitious student and his book selling professor.

    Doesn't State's Attorney Alvarez has a duty to look into this fully? While some of these students see this as their class project, I think the prosecutors need to see this as their job. I hope they look into it thoroughly and completely to make sure a miscarriage of justice does not occur.