There’s a very important editorial in The Nation this week that I hope everyone will take the time to read. It’s about the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney, who’s been in prison for thirty-one years for a murder he did not commit. I’m posting the relevant portions below.
On the evening of September 15, 1978, a white security guard named Donald Lundahl was murdered in a robbery gone awry in a racially fraught southern suburb of Chicago. Police fingered Anthony McKinney, an 18-year-old African-American with no criminal record, as the killer. The prosecution sought death by lethal injection; the judge sentenced McKinney to life in prison.
McKinney has long maintained his innocence. Based on newly uncovered evidence, there’s strong reason to believe that he has spent thirty-one years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
…In 2000 the Land of Lincoln’s Republican governor, George Ryan, issued a moratorium on the death penalty, and in 2003 he granted clemency to all death-row inmates. Ryan announced his decision at Northwestern University, citing the work of Northwestern journalism professor David Protess and his students at the Medill School of Journalism, who had uncovered evidence that helped free five wrongly convicted men from death row.
In 2003 Protess and his students began examining McKinney’s case. Over three years of painstaking reporting, they unearthed startling new evidence: the prosecution’s two main witnesses, 15 and 18 at the time of the trial, recanted their testimony during interviews with the students, claiming they were beaten by the police and intimidated into doctoring the facts; McKinney alleged that he was beaten with a pipe by a detective with a history of police brutality before signing a sham confession; TV logs proved that both witnesses were watching a boxing match at the time of the shooting and thus could not have seen the murder; an ex-gang member, Anthony Drake, confessed on tape to being at the murder scene, named two perpetrators and said McKinney was not involved; current and former residents of the neighborhood confirmed they heard Drake and two other suspects confess to Lundahl’s murder.
In 2006 the Medill Innocence Project turned over its findings to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s law school. The center shared the evidence with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which began an internal investigation the following year. After more than a year of delay by the state, the center filed a postconviction petition on behalf of McKinney in October 2008, calling for a new trial or his immediate release. Following her election that November as Cook County State’s Attorney, hardline career prosecutor Anita Alvarez fought the discovery of new evidence, and in May she issued a sweeping, unprecedented subpoena ordering Protess to hand over all material related to the McKinney case–including students’ private memos and grades. Alvarez insultingly suggested that students might receive better grades for uncovering exculpatory evidence and claimed that Protess and his students were "investigators," not journalists, and thus not subject to the Illinois shield law…Apparently Alvarez has never heard of investigative journalism.
…The state’s subpoena, wielded to stall justice and intimidate those who seek it, sets a terrible precedent. Lawyer Barry Scheck says that in his seventeen years at the Innocence Project in New York, he’s never seen a subpoena of this nature directed at journalists or lawyers. Concludes Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, "It creates an enormous chilling effect that’s positively glacial."
Judge Cannon will soon rule on the validity of the state’s subpoena. We urge her to throw it out and order a prompt evidentiary hearing. The kind of difficult reporting undertaken by the Medill Innocence Project should be celebrated, not undermined. It’s shocking that the state would rather keep an innocent man behind bars than admit a mistake.
Nine groups of student journalists from Medill have interviewed McKinney in prison. By their accounts, he’s a fragile and gentle man who’s battled severe depression during three decades of wrongful incarceration. "If the state had gotten its way," Protess notes, "he would have been executed long ago."
I was one of those students. 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. (CNN anchor and McKinney alum Nicole Lapin has also posted a great piece about her own experiences.)
Find out the truth, David told us. That was his only mandate. Our work on the McKinney case strongly convinced me of his innocence. The facts were startling and overwhelming. We hoped that after the Center on Wrongful Convictions shared our evidence with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, the state would see things from our vantage point, treat the facts with respect and come to a serious conclusion about McKinney’s innocence, granting him a new trial or full release. That hasn’t happened. Instead, the state has stalled its own investigation and hit Protess and his students with an unprecedented subpoena that has far-reaching ramifications.
It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to work on a wrongful convictions case until you’ve actually done it. The work eats at you and wrenches at your heart. This case is not over. Justice can still be done. David taught us to believe, perhaps naively, that the truth is powerful enough to set someone free.