CHICAGO (CN) – Northwestern journalism students whose investigative work reignited a nationwide debate on the death penalty are being forced to defend themselves. Cook County prosecutors subpoenaed journalism professor David Protess, seeking his students’ grades, his syllabus and their private e-mails. Northwestern’s attorneys want the subpoenas quashed.
Prosecutors claim that students may have been pressured to declare people innocent, in the belief that it would get them a better grade.
The students at issue spent three years investigating a 1978 murder and concluded that the wrong man was sent to prison.
Protess’ students have helped free 11 innocent men from prison since 1996, including some from Death Row.
His students found that in some cases, police had bullied or forced coerced false confessions, costing Illinois tens of millions of dollars in damages for those who were wrongfully convicted.
The students’ work is credited with prompting then-Gov. George Ryan to empty the state’s Death Row in 2003, bringing the death penalty back into national headlines. The group has never been subpoenaed before.
Though Northwestern’s lawyers want the subpoenas quashed, prosecutors say that Protess and his students aren’t journalists, and therefore are not protected by reporters’ privilege.