United States Project

How the Medill Justice Project has thrived following controversy

March 23, 2015
Photo: Wikimedia

More than four years after it was engulfed in controversy, the Medill Innocence Project remains in the headlines—and not always for the right reasons. Northwestern University, the project’s home, was hit last month with a well-publicized lawsuit by a man who says he was wrongfully jailed for 15 years as the result of probe by the project that freed a second man from death row.

But there’s another story at Medill that deserves attention, too: Even as the fallout continues, the renowned program has been remade under a different name, a different leader, and a whole different approach.

Now known as the Medill Justice Project, the program has been led since 2011 by Alec Klein, a former investigative reporter at The Washington Post. Students continue to investigate claims of prisoners who say they were railroaded by the justice system. But they no longer advocate for the release of wrongfully convicted prisoners—a practice that won accolades for the Innocence Project and David Protess, its founder, but later made them targets of criticism from prosecutors, the media, and the university itself.

Instead, students research cases, publish stories on several platforms about their findings, and, notably, do not share information with defense lawyers.

“We’re teaching them to be investigative reporters,” Klein said. “We want them to be comfortable doing the heavy lifting—going through public records, tracking down elusive sources, persuading reluctant sources to talk…. If in the process they uncover revelatory information that, of course, is a great achievement.”

In the wake of the changes, the Medill program has captured awards from the Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists, worked on projects with several professional news organizations, put together a national database on shaken-baby syndrome cases, and helped form the Journalism Justice Network, a small international organization for similar programs.

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Just days ago, The Washington Post published a series of stories based on the results of a year-long investigation of shaken baby syndrome that it conducted with the Justice Project. The investigation studied about 1,800 cases in which people were suspected or charged in shaken baby cases. The Post reported that “the study for the first time identified about 200 cases in 47 states that ended when charges were dropped or dismissed, defendants were found not guilty or convictions were overturned.”

And the project does still uncover “revelatory information”: Last year, evidence the students found helped convince a federal judge in Illinois to release Jennifer Del Prete, who had served nearly half of a 20-year sentence after being convicted of shaking a baby to death. She showed her gratitude by delaying her release in order to give Klein and his students’ time to drive to the downstate Illinois prison where she was held so they could witness and report on the day.

“We’ve had a great run,” Klein says.

We’re teaching them to be investigative reporters… If in the process they uncover revelatory information that, of course, is a great achievement.

As he and his students go about their work, Klein says, “we’re not really focused on what [Protess] did or didn’t do.” But both the uproar and the accomplishments of the earlier era are hard to forget.

Protess founded the Medill Innocence Project in the late 1990s, and under his direction the program’s investigations led to the release of about a dozen inmates. The project’s work is often credited with a key role in ending the death penalty in Illinois.

But Protess left Northwestern in 2011, after he was removed from the program by the administration. Investigations revealed how closely the program worked with defense lawyers—a relationship that prosecutors said cost the students protections provided to reporters by the Illinois shield law—and raised questions about the tactics used by Protess, his students, and a private investigator employed by the Innocence Project. A Northwestern investigation concluded that Protess had doctored an email before turning it over to investigators and also asserted he had lied to the university.

It was a messy breakup. And now, Protess and Northwestern each find themselves named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by Alstory Simon, who alleges that Protess and others conspired to frame him and that he was intimidated into confessing to a double murder so another man sitting on death row for the crime could be exonerated. The first man convicted was released in 1999; prosecutors had Simon released from prison last year, after he had spent 15 years in prison, so nobody is serving time for the crimes.

Protess, who launched the Chicago Innocence Project after he left Northwestern, declined to comment. Northwestern said in a statement that it “looks forward to being vindicated in a court of law.”

While at the Post, Klein won a Gerald Loeb Award for his investigation of AOL’s takeover of Time Warner. Still, he admits that the controversy surrounding Protess’ sudden exit left him wondering whether students would even show up for a class taught by him, instead of his larger-than-life predecessor.

“David came up with a great idea by creating a program like this,” Klein said. “We know that some students apply to Northwestern because of the program. They are inspired by it.”

Despite signing a petition asking that Protess be reinstated, the students did show up in 2011, and every semester since then.

For all the changes, some well-known aspects of the program have remained the same, like the requirement that students venture out of their suburban Chicago campus, sometimes meeting up with sketchy characters in prisons, courthouses, or crime-ridden neighborhoods.

“For many of the students, this is their first time in a prison or talking to a criminal,” Klein said.

One case in point: In 2012, Klein and four students traveled to Arizona to track down Paul Yalda, a former Chicago resident with a string of run-ins with the law. Yalda had been acquitted in a 1997 shooting that killed an innocent bystander, and the students wanted to ask him whether Ariel Gomez, one of two men convicted in the shooting, was really innocent, as other witnesses had said.

The students initially confronted Yalda in a parking lot outside of a courthouse. It did not go smoothly.

Yalda “wasn’t happy. He was enraged,” the students wrote in a story about the encounter. “Cigarette waving in his hand, he threatened to spit in our face if he ever saw us again.”

It was only after Yalda spoke to his girlfriend that he calmed down and agreed to talk. Unknown to him, the girlfriend was an ally of the students—the result of a meeting at an Olive Garden the evening before, recalled Olivia LaVecchia, one of the students on the trip.

Then Yalda dropped a bombshell on the students who had been investigating Gomez’s conviction for months. “He’s guilty,” Yalda said. “He is guilty, and this is coming from a longtime friend.”

If the Justice Project students had been working as advocates trying to free Gomez, the statement might have been devastating. But they were learning to be investigative reporters, so they did what reporters do: They wrote a couple of stories, reporting Yalda’s claim and putting it in context against what else was known about the case.

“We were simply trying to uncover the truth,” said LaVecchia, who now works as a research associate for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. “We were not seeking a particular answer or outcome.”

The Medill project’s shift in focus occurs against the backdrop of a broader debate. While most innocence projects are led by lawyers or law schools and openly advocate for the release of wrongly convicted individuals, whether programs involving journalism students should do so as well has long been a subject of discussion.

Steve Weinberg, a journalist who created the Midwest Innocence Project at the University of Missouri along with a law professor, said he had no problems with his journalism students working hand in glove with law students. “I don’t see it as a problem as long as everybody goes into it with their eyes open and brains prepared,” said Weinberg, who is now retired from the project.

By working on the investigations, student journalists “learn a lot about how the system works,” said Weinberg, a former director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. “They learn skills that will make them better criminal justice reporters.”

That type of thinking doesn’t play well with Klein—or with Bill Moushey, a former investigative reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who created and ran the now-defunct Innocence Institute of Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

“The project I founded and directed has never veered away a purely journalistic model (and never would),” Moushey, who is in discussions to launch a new journalism-based innocence program at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in an email.

Working as an advocate can cost a journalist credibility as a reporter, he added in a follow-up interview. “You’re either one or the other,” Moushey said. “You can’t be both.”

Cary Spivak is an investigative reporter specializing in legal and business issues at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has won numerous state and national reporting awards.