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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

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