EVANSTON, Ill. -- David Protess says his life changed on the day in 1991 when David Dowaliby walked free.
"That's when I really found my life's calling," says the Northwestern University journalism professor, whose students' digging helped overturn Mr. Dowaliby's conviction for the murder of his 7-year-old stepdaughter.
Mr. Protess also found a career that has made him a media star, with a string of book and movie deals. He and his future students would go on to free 10 more convicted murderers and inspire former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to halt the death penalty in the state.
Now, state prosecutors in Chicago are trying to turn the legal and ethical tables on Mr. Protess and his students. Prosecutors have alleged the students paid informants and were acting as private investigators rather than journalists -- in a bid to strip them of protections under an Illinois shield law for reporters. At risk are the fates both of Mr. Protess's class and of Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of the 1978 murder of a security guard.
Mr. Protess, an alternately charming and pugnacious 63-year-old with a hint of a Brooklyn accent, said he has had good relations with prosecutors in the past. This time around, he said, they are engaged in a "smear campaign" motivated by "payback for previous embarrassments and pay-forward for cases my students are still investigating."
Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez, whose office has subpoenaed unpublished interviews, student grades and emails, says she just wants to get to the truth. "This is not writing for the newspaper, it's not writing a term paper," she says. "It's creating evidence for a criminal court."
Mr. Protess earned a doctorate in public policy from the University of Chicago in 1974, but he says he soon grew bored with pure academia.
"When I received my doctorate, the action was in journalism because of Watergate," he says. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, "were my heroes."
Mr. Protess gravitated toward investigative reporting, eventually writing for Chicago Lawyer magazine and other publications, while teaching at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.
A turning point came in 1990, when he and a team of students took on Mr. Dowaliby's case. The group's work led a key government witness to admit he couldn't be sure Mr. Dowaliby was the man he had seen near a Dumpster where the girl's body was found. A subsequent book by Mr. Protess and journalist Rob Warden was turned into a made-for-TV movie starring Shannen Doherty.
The case set a pattern in which Mr. Protess trained his investigative-journalism students and sent them off on real-life assignments.
Mr. Protess says he has received 15,000 requests for help from convicts since he set up the Medill Innocence Project in 1999. His students have investigated about 50 of them.
"There has to be some compelling doubt," he says. Grades aren't influenced by the outcome, just the quality of the work, he added.
Diana Samuels, now a 23-year-old reporter for the Palo Alto, Calif., Daily News, found evidence of guilt, not innocence, when she was poring over the phone records of a man convicted of armed robbery and murder in the case she investigated in 2008. A call placed to a rental-car company led her to a car spotted at the crime scene.
"He was a good actor," she says of the convict, who confessed he had been lying to the students, but "we tried to keep an open mind." She says she received an A in the class.
Mr. Protess says the students also kept an open mind in the case of Anthony McKinney, 49, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1978 murder of Donald Lundahl.
With no physical evidence linking Mr. McKinney to the murder, the students used the television log for a boxing match to prove that two witnesses who said they watched the fight couldn't also have been at the scene of the crime when it was committed.
And they tracked down seven people who said a convicted murderer, Tony Drake, had confessed to the crime. They also taped Mr. Drake saying he was at the scene and Mr. McKinney wasn't.
Mr. Protess blogged about the case and turned over the students' work to Northwestern lawyers, who filed a petition in Cook County Circuit Court last year, seeking to vacate Mr. McKinney's conviction or obtain a new trial.
In a filing two weeks ago, prosecutors said Mr. Drake had recanted his statement. They also said Mr. Drake alleged that he received $40 in cash from a cab driver who had been given $60 by a private investigator working with the students.
Evan Benn, now a 27-year-old reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says he, not the investigator, paid the driver $60 based on where Mr. Drake said he wanted to go. Mr. Benn says he told the driver, " 'Don't let him out early. Don't give him any of the money. No funny business.' "
Mr. Protess vows to press the case even if it lands him in jail for refusing to turn over the records. "This is not a fight I picked, but it's one I've come to embrace," he says.Source(online.wsj.com)