The battle between prosecutors and Northwestern University journalism program is heating up.
The prosecutors are now accusing students of paying witnesses.
Cook County, Illinois prosecutors were highly criticised by the journalistic community for issuing subpoenas for the grades and off-the-record notes of students who participated in certain cases for the school’s Innocence Project, which investigates potentially wrongful convictions.
But yesterday prosecutors filed papers with the court alleging that students investigating a 1978 shooting paid two witnesses in the hopes that their statements would help exonerate the man convicted of the murder, the Chicago Tribute said. A similar Wall Street Journal report is here.
The prosecutors state that, “The evidence shows that [witness] Tony Drakes gave his video statement upon the understanding that he would receive cash if he gave the answers that inculpated himself and that Drakes promptly used the money to purchase crack cocaine.”
The payment was $60 given to a cab driver hired to take Drakes home. One of the then-students, Evan Benn, said that he gave the money to the driver directly and told him not to give any of the money to Drakes.
Another witness, the filing said, claims to have been paid $50 or $100, but did not provide details.
Professor David Protess (pictured above, with students, in 1999), who supervises the project, was critical of the prosecutors’ claims, saying their filing was “so filled with factual errors that if my students had done this kind of reporting or investigating, I would have given them an F.”
The prosecutors say they are seeking the information in preparing for a hearing on the conviction for the 1978 shooting, and obtaining all the relevant information in such a case is such a priority.
Questions like these, at the intersection of law and journalism, are not clear cut. We said before that the students should not be the focus here, and that remains true.
Payment to a witness is of course relevant information and, if it happened, prosecutors are rightly interested in that information, as long as getting it does not violate any press shield laws.
Students’ grades, however, still seem outside the scope, as do their off-the-record notes not directly relevant to any payment. It just is not the job of the students to do the work for the prosecutors. The state should be able to “solve” the case in the same way the students did — or, if is the case may, didn’t — and should be able to get the relevant information without crossing the line into attacking the student-journalists.
Protess has presumably reviewed the off-the-record notes of the students, and one has to believe that he would have taken issue with any notes that were in contrast to their stated findings. The ethics of the program, and the University, are clearly under attack. It’s not surprising they are not acquiescing quietly.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.