The Professor and the Prosecutor: Anita Alvarez’s office turns up the heat on David Protess’s Medill Innocence Project

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office provides at least two reporters a memo containing scurrilous and unsubstantiated claims about the conduct of the Northwestern University journalism professor and his students in an earlier case.

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Professor David Protess, the head of the Medill Innocence Project, has refused to turn over certain materials to the Cook County state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez.
Professor David Protess, the head of the Medill Innocence Project, has refused to turn over certain materials to the Cook County state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez.


In their own ways, they have risen to stardom on a stage built from misery, two battlers who grapple with questions of life-and-death justice: Anita Alvarez, a Chicago native and career prosecutor with working-class roots, who dramatically emerged from a pack of formidable opponents to become the first woman and first person of Hispanic descent to hold the top job in the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the nation; and the Northwestern University professor David Protess, a crusader against wrongful convictions who has guided his students to find fresh evidence that helped free five people from death row and sprang six others from imprisonment for murders they did not commit—putting prosecutors on the defensive with each notch in his belt.

Over the more than two decades they built their careers, the two rarely crossed paths. That changed when Alvarez, who took office a little over a year ago, found herself dealing with the latest Protess cause: the claim that a man named Anthony McKinney had been wrongly jailed for more than 30 years.

In this case, 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.

Alvarez insists that she is simply doing what a prosecutor should do—make every reasonable effort to ascertain the truth behind possible evidence and testimony in a criminal case. “I have a duty to seek out whatever evidence is out there, and that’s what I’m doing,” she told me.

Her approach, however, has set off a national controversy and ignited counteraccusations that her real interest is to intimidate, bully, and perhaps destroy Protess’s operation. Alvarez dismisses those allegations as “insulting.”

Meanwhile, outside court, her office has given at least two reporters a memo about a 1996 case as “background” information. The memo recounts scurrilous and unsubstantiated claims about the conduct of Protess and students who were working on an investigation that resulted in freeing two men from death row and two others from life sentences. “What on earth does [an old] memo based on lies and designed to smear my students have to do with the truth of whether Anthony McKinney was wrongfully convicted?” asks Protess.

Now, a case that was about whether a convicted man is innocent has morphed into an increasingly personal brawl between two heavyweights unwilling to back down—with academics, prosecutors, freedom of the press advocates, and students hanging on the judge’s decision.

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Photography: (left) Tom Maday Photo assistant: Jeffrey Ross; (right) Chicago Tribune photo by Brian Cassella



5 years ago
Posted by Emmy

Alvarez's actions reflect those of someone more concerned with preserving the track record of her office than with seeing that real justice is served. It is a shame and a disgrace to her position that she is prosecuting the student journalists involved in this case instead of pursuing the truth about what happened so long ago. Not only are the students and faculty of Northwestern University and the Innocence Project being unfairly burdened with this case, but so too are the families of Donald Lundahl and Anthony McKinney.

5 years ago
Posted by Alby Flugzeug

These prosecutors are all disgusting. Our legal system is a shambles, there are so many wrongful convictions, and our Supreme Court presides over the whole unconstitutional mess. Veggie Libel laws, unconstitutional laws in states all over the union, hate speech in media, now this! These nasty people. I hate paying my taxes for their salaries.

5 years ago
Posted by bettymedsger

If the prosecutor said the most important question in this matter is to determine whether someone has been wrongfully imprisoned for 30 years, then it would be possible later to consider possibly related matters. But until she gives top priority to determining whether gross injustice occurred in the prosecution of this case, her claims against Professor Protess and his students are inevitably seen as mean-spirited and lacking an understanding of her basic responsibility to seek justice as her primary obligation as a prosecutor.

5 years ago
Posted by focus2011

Anita Alvarez is a Chicago machine hack,put into office with the help of the Chicago's 19th ward Democratic organization. Look at the police torturer Jon Burge,and how closely he worked with Mayor Daley,and the Crook County States Attorney's office. The Crook County States Attorney almost never prosecutes corrupt politicians,or the Chicago Mob,just street criminals. Anita Alvarez was in the room when her former boss Dick Devine cut crooked deals with Daley and members of the Chicago Machine. Ask Anita Alvarez why does the Federal Government have to come into Chicago to prosecute Mob hitmen?

5 years ago
Posted by a.v.

Lots of questions about "motives" in this story. The answers are clear: Alvarez and her prosecutors' motive is to lock people up; Protess and his students' motive is to get convicts declared innocent, hence the name "Innocence Project."

The motive of both sides SHOULD be to find the truth. Instead they seem to be caught up in winning their rivalry against each other and that's turned both parties into zealots and not truth seekers.

I must say, this story is one of the more balanced looks at the controversy. I came into it thinking Alvarez was way out of bounds, but the recantations by the witnesses that Protess and his students found and the bit about the private investigator posing as a Hollywood producer have given me pause.

Let's just get this thing in front of a judge and jury at a second trial and let them figure it out. End the side show.

5 years ago
Posted by dk

A.V. you wrote that Protess and his students have as a motive "to get convicts declared innocent". A careful reading of the article tells us that their motive is to look for cases where the person might be innocent and then investigate the case to determine whether evidence exists to prove it. Sometimes the evidence uncovers supports a the guilty conviction. A more accurate statement on motive would be: to get wrongfully-convicted persons declared innocent. This change in the sentence means the their motive is to find the truth.

It is obvious to me that the prosecutor is way out of line.

5 years ago
Posted by Evelyn

it's an epidemic

5 years ago
Posted by CT

Reminds me of another woman prosecutor, headed for TV -- New York, Westchester County's DA Jeannine Pirro. Only convictions mattered and many lives were destroyed for career gain -- Jeff Deskovic, wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 17 years for a crime he did not commit. They spent years keeping the lid on his case so the truth would not come out. Jeff has much to say about prosecutorial misconduct ---

It is well established the prosecutors are the most powerful in the country and courtrooms of America and are granted absolute immunity, so what chance does an ordinary person stand? There are thousands of wrongfully convicted and imprisoned people in our prisons and jails. It is time to establish a Review panel for prosecutors. Going after these students is a cheap shot but hey! Ms. Anita Alvarez now has her 15 minutes of fame. Isn't that what this group of "vultures" who are destroying our society want?

5 years ago
Posted by CT

Not only is it an epidemic, is is also a witch hunt. A pattern established by DA Ed Jagel, Bakersfield, California. How to get "easy" convictions and/or go after "high-profile" defendants. See award winning documentary "Witch Hunt"

Unfortunately, Jagel cost the state of California millions in 25 convictions that got reversed. He was never fired and after 25 years recently retired. His influence maintained the failed 3-strikes laws that have California on the brink of disaster. Now, if Alvarez is allowed to prevail in this "high-profile" case then she too is on her way. This sick game the prosecutors play with non-violent defendants is disgusting and must come to an end. It is as transparent as clear plastic wrap!

5 years ago
Posted by Thagg1

It's difficult for me to regard students working within the criminal justice system as "journalists" and I'm surprised journalism organizations support them as such. I wonder what the same organizations would think if Chuck Goudie, Carol Marin or Maurie Possley investigated a murder case, found evidence of guilt, and presented it to prosecutors, all without doing a story on the case? More importantly, what would their bosses think?
Yes, the students are enrolled in a journalism class. But, in this case, they appear to be, at most, interns working for a non-profit organization, not a publication or broadcast outlet.
My other question is, how closely are the students supervised? When they talk to a witness, what safeguards are in place to assure they don't offer money or other rewards in return for testimony?

4 years ago

I read with interest Bryan Smith’s article The Professor and the Prosecutor (February 2010, page 66) and must comment on Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez’s (ALVAREZ), disingenuousness.

First, to fully comprehend prosecutors’ psychopathology, one must understand that they, especially career prosecutors such as ALVAREZ, are not the good guys searching for truth & justice. In fact, these prosecutors are out to get those who have embarrassed, beaten, or criticized them. Chicago criminal defense attorneys know this type of retaliation well. If their client is acquitted of, for example, murder and then arrested for possessing illegal drugs, supervising prosecutors are specifically assigned to aggressively prosecute that defendant to get-him for beating his murder charge. Multiple supervising prosecutors have even appeared simultaneously against pro se defendants in misdemeanor courtrooms. Talk about overkill! Professor David Protess’s (PROTESS) and his students have repeatedly embarrassed, beaten, and criticized various Cook County prosecutors by proving that innocent people have been incarcerated for heinous crimes they did not commit and the real culprits have either not been arrested or were located by these same students. Instead of welcoming the students’ work that her underlings failed to do, ALVAREZ is now out to shut them down. Her behavior, which is consistent with the above examples, is clearly retaliatory.

Second, ALVAREZ is correct when she states that she has a “... duty to seek out whatever evidence is out there” (page 68). However, she and her underlings only care about inculpatory evidence. Albeit law (i.e., Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)) binds them to give the defense all exculpatory and inculpatory evidence, they only concern themselves with the latter. Indeed, an unwritten rule in her office, which she confirmed for me, is prosecute all cases in which a testifying witness is available. In other words, generally her office will not dismiss cases with available testifying witnesses, regardless of the cases’ merits.

Third, ALVAREZ states she does not appreciate having her name in the same sentence as Gestapo, feels offended/insulted/hurt by the recent criticism, and feels personally attacked (page 68). Has she ever considered how those wrongfully convicted must feel to have their names in the same sentence as, for instance, murderer or rapist? Has she ever thought how those wrongfully convicted must feel to have been verbally, and probably physically, attacked while incarcerated?

Fourth, ALVAREZ created the Us Versus-Them Theory when she had PROTESS’s Innocence Project served with subpoenas and gave the media an irrelevant internal memorandum regarding a 1996 case. If she really wanted to work amicably with PROTESS’s group on cases, as she maintains (page 144), she would have called him on the telephone, like a reasonable person, to express her concerns.

Fifth, ALVAREZ mistakenly believes her work as a career prosecutor for the past 23 years is relevant here (page 68). When, for example, a 50-year-old law-abiding woman decides to rob a bank and is subsequently apprehended, she is prosecuted (as she should be) despite her clean record. ALVAREZ knows that one’s positive past only becomes relevant at sentencing which is after being adjudged guilty. Accordingly, ALVAREZ’s past 23 years as a career prosecutor will only become relevant if she is found guilty of a crime or of contravening an ethical rule.

Sixth, ALVAREZ implicitly acknowledges that the students’ grades are irrelevant when she states, “[e]verybody’s focus is on grades and not focusing on all this other information that is relevant. The grades are only 1 percent of what we’re looking for. Ninety-nine percent of what was contained in that subpoena is all relevant information that we are entitled to.” (page 142; emphasis added.)

Seventh, to properly discredit the students’ work, ALVAREZ has to allege and prove that they explicitly entered a quid pro quo relationship with one or more interviewees. She has done neither. Flirting, even if it occurred, does not necessarily rise to the level of quid pro quo. Further, even if the students’ grades reflect whether they found exculpatory information and even if these students knew this, their grades contribute absolutely nothing to whether a quid pro quo relationship existed. Additionally, paying a witness’s travel expenses, taking a witness out for a meal, or paying for a witness’s time are all acceptable practices that attorneys frequently do. Importantly, these acts, without more, do not establish a quid pro quo relationship.

In summary, I am dismayed, though not surprised, that instead of using risk management/quality assurance concepts to preclude wrongfully prosecuting innocent people and subsequently ruining their lives and the lives of their loved-ones, ALVAREZ has opted to intimidate, bully, and destroy PROTESS’s Innocence Project. Her retaliatory and harassing behavior is reprehensible. Our judiciary must stop her.


4 years ago
Posted by Mariann Pepitone

Anita Alvarez should not have been voted in as a States Attorney. I think she got voted in by fraudulent votes. She was a victim at one time and now wants to make others a victim. Her staff doesn't keep correct records and I should know. I am one of her victims. She is bad news and let's hope she doesn't get voted in office again when her time comes up. I didn't vote for her and she doesn't have the speaking voice for a states attorney. In fact, I had never heard of her until I had dealings with her. I do know Al Sharpton has a lawsuit going against her and I also will be talking to the ACLU showing them my paperwork.

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