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“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.
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.
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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