What Happened Between David Protess and Medill?

LOSS OF INNOCENCE: The star professor dedicated his 29-year career at Northwestern’s journalism school to overturning wrongful convictions and, in doing so, almost single-handedly prompted the end of the death penalty in Illinois. How did he and Medill come to such a bitter and rancorous end—in which no party escaped untarnished?

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David Protess
“To see the most celebrated faculty member on a prestigious journalism faculty in a great university come to this kind of nasty parting with his institution—for a lot of us on the inside, it remains something of a mystery,” says a former colleague.


Anita Alvarez’s office turns up the heat on Protess (February 2010)

A look at Dean John Lavine (September 2007)

UPDATE (9/7/2011): This morning, Judge Diane Cannon of the Cook County Circuit Court ruled that the Northwestern University students in the reporting class of former professor David Protess were acting as investigators for the defense rather than as journalists, and were therefore not protected by the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act.

Cannon ordered that more than 500 e-mails between Protess and students who reexamined the three-decades old murder conviction of Anthony McKinney be turned over to prosecutors. The university said it is weighing its options, including a possible appeal.

The two-year legal wrangling that led to the ruling lies at the heart of the story below, which takes an in-depth look at the controversial circumstances surrounding the acrimonious departure of Protess from Northwestern and the resulting wounds that have yet to heal among many. ”Loss of Innocence” appears in the October issue of Chicago, on newsstands September 15.

* * *

The image is indelible. Anthony Porter, a death row inmate who had come within 48 hours of being executed, had just walked out of Cook County jail a free man. A car was waiting to whisk him away, but before Porter could climb inside, he caught sight of a rumpled-looking, silver-haired man beaming next to a group of exultant college students. Porter ran over, threw his arms around him, and lifted the professor up, up into the raw cold of a February 1999 afternoon, until the man’s feet swung above the cracked concrete lot.

One by one, Porter repeated the act, hoisting each of the five students in turn. Shutters clicked. Cameras whirred. The moment flashed on screens across the United States and around the world, a giddy symbol of justice triumphant and yet another bragging right for the institution that the man had called his professional home for nearly two decades: Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

It wasn’t the first time David Protess and his investigative reporting class had grabbed headlines. Three years earlier, he and his students had captured national attention by helping exonerate the Ford Heights Four—four men wrongfully convicted of murder, two of whom were on death row.

The Porter case, however, launched him and his program into the academic and journalistic stratosphere. George Ryan, then the governor of Illinois, cited Protess’s work as the driving force behind his imposition of a first-of-its-kind death penalty moratorium. “Innocence projects,” patterned on Protess’s own at Medill, sprang up across the country, filled with students and lawyers whose idealistic fervor was inspired by the Medill professor and what his class had accomplished.

In the years that followed, more exonerations would come—12 by the time Protess was done, five of which were men awaiting execution. The already estimable reputation of Northwestern’s journalism school grew with each victory. It would all end ugly, of course, in a scandal that dealt a blow to Protess’s legacy and tarnished the university. But there seemed only possibilities on that February day when Protess and his students were lifted up, up in the cold gray, against the backdrop of a jail from which another man wrongfully sentenced to die had, thanks to them, walked free.


Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp



3 years ago
Posted by JohnKWilson

This article is a good examination of the appalling actions by the Northwestern administration against David Protess. I am particularly amazed by the admission that the administration thinks it can ban faculty from attending faculty meetings if they are on leave for the semester. It's a small point, but it reflects both the repressive tendencies of Northwestern administrators and their outright hypocrisy, since I am sure many faculty who have been on leave can come forward to reveal that they have attended faculty meetings without opposition.

In one area, this article falls short. It notes, “The American Association of University Professors also demanded to know Lavine’s reasoning.” In reality, the AAUP letters to Northwestern (available on my blog at http://collegefreedom.blogspot.com) demanded to know why the administration was violating Northwestern's own rules for due process before removing a faculty member from teaching responsibilities. It wasn't just the lack of any good reason for removing Protess from his class (and now the university completely) that upset the AAUP, it was the lack of any due process that the University's own rules demanded.

3 years ago
Posted by Former student

The question you pose in your headline - "What Happened Between David Protess and Medill?" - is sensational but easily answered: Protess did illegal stuff, and Medill found out about it.

The 7,000 words that appear below the headline seem to have a single goal: distraction from that easy answer.

3 years ago
Posted by Chicago Magazine

EDITOR'S CLARIFICATION: David Protess has not been accused of any criminal misconduct in connection with this case.

3 years ago
Posted by A PERSON 101

After seven pages, little of substance was revealed against Protess, just some vague stuff about the contents of old emails. As to the allegations against the students, they appear nonsensical. Misrepresenting oneself surely can be justified under these circumstances as long as no lies are told about the details of conversations.

This looks to me, on the basis of the information in this report, an attempt to silence David Protess.

3 years ago
Posted by A Person 102

"This looks to me, on the basis of the information in this report, an attempt to silence David Protess."

That's because, A Person 101, the "information in this report" is David Protess's side of the story, verbatim.

3 years ago
Posted by butbutbut

We only see Protess' side because the other side refused to talk. Maybe they have something to hide.

3 years ago
Posted by A Person 102

BUTBUTBUT - Several other articles about this same topic quote "the other side" at length. So maybe it was less a case of them "refusing to talk" and more a case of a lazy reporter with an agenda not bothering to contact them.

3 years ago
Posted by NU Alum

maybe it was less a case of them "refusing to talk" and more a case of a lazy reporter with an agenda not bothering to contact them.


Did you seriously read the article? The reporter contacted the dean, who refused to talk, Prof. Ferkenhoff, who refused to talk, the university's lawyer, who refused to talk, and the Tribune reporter, who refused to talk. In response to a crucial question bout why the university chose to believe Protess' admittedly flawed memory over a lawyer who had the student memos in hand, university spokesperson Cubbage refused to talk. Sounds to me like a conspiracy of silence by the university and its PR flaks rather than laziness by the reporter.

3 years ago
Posted by A Person 102


(I think you meant your message for me, although you addressed it to "BUTBUTBUT.")

I read the article very closely.

You listed five people who refused to talk (and I'm being generous and including Cubbage - who did comment but not about that one isue you bring up - and both Ferkenhoff and "the Tribune reporter," even though both of whom had no business commenting because they weren't involved and even if they were, they certainly didn't represent "the other side" - the mysterious entity that "BUTBUTBUT" was claiming was "refusing to talk").

Anyway, five people. You may have gone to NU, but you clearly did not go to Medill. Five people declined to comment for a 7,000 word investigative story. Really? Wow. Shocking. What a conspiracy.

I read that The Daily Northwestern reporter, when he wrote about this exact same issue six months ago, interviewed 75 people. Now that's reporting. This story (which is longer) cites exactly nine (although that includes Cubbage, who you say we're not supposed to count).

Of the other eight we're allowed to count, it's Protess, his two strongest supporters on the faculty, four unaffiliated "experts" and the Daily reporter (he earns a 3-word quote).

That's it. In 7,000 words. Do a search for how often some version of "Protess says" comes up in this article. It's remarkable.

So I stand by my statement - this article is Protess's side, verbatim.

3 years ago
Posted by @ person 102

@ person 101...Your comment about the article's sourcing is ridiculous. How do you know precisely how many people the author spoke to? How do you know how many people declined to comment? With all due respect, you don't.

What the story makes perfectly clear is that the author tried to get comment from the principles involved in this fiasco and they turned the author down. What more could the author do? It's simply unfair and misleading of you to say this is Protess' side, and use that as your basis to criticize, when the "other side" would not comment.

You seem to be giving Medill and NU the benefit of the doubt. Why? Do you work there? Are you one of the folks who declined to comment?

Please, ask yourself this question: what kind of message does it send when high-ranking faculty at a journalism school refuse to comment? If they were in the right, what did they have to fear in going on the record.

3 years ago
Posted by NU Alum

"I read that The Daily Northwestern reporter, when he wrote about this exact same issue six months ago, interviewed 75 people. Now that's reporting." --A Person 102

Dear Person,

That's reporting? A campus newspaper is your authoritative source? Really?

In fact, it's impossible to tell whether the Daily's reporter interviewed "75 people" or only a handful since the vast majority of his sources were anonymous. This was among the problems that prompted criticism of his story by two Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and several former high-ranking Daily staffers.

Your comment also doesn't explain why Dean Lavine refused to comment for the Chicago magazine story. From reading the story, he sure seemed to have had a lot to say when he wanted to get rid of Protess. But when a reporter started asking hard questions? Silence.

Are you working for the dean or for the Daily?

1 year ago
Posted by ugh

it also got Brian nominated for a Mirror Award, so you can shut your mouth, NU ALUM.

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