CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Search for truth continues in Chicago case

 
 
ALVAREZ
ALVAREZ

statesattorney@cookcountyil.gov

My name found its way onto the pages of the Miami Herald recently in an opinion piece written by reporter Evan Benn ( A reporter’s search for truth and justice ends with one man’s death, Sept. 1). After reading Benn’s piece, I felt compelled to respond in order to set the record straight about my work as Chicago’s chief prosecutor.

Benn was selective in the information that he shared regarding a case that he worked on as a student while studying at the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism.

In 2003, under the direction of former Northwestern Professor David Protess, Benn and other journalism students became involved in the case of Anthony McKinney, a man sentenced to life in prison on a murder conviction. Protess and his students took up an investigation of McKinney’s 1981 conviction and concluded that McKinney was not guilty of the crime. Two eyewitnesses who had identified McKinney at the time of the murder allegedly recanted when students, including Benn, questioned them more than 25 years later.

These doubts raised by the (now revamped) Medill Innocence Project led my office to agree to re-examine the facts of the case, which we were not required to do under the law, but nonetheless agreed to do in good faith.

I do not proclaim to be a journalist and Benn is clearly not a prosecutor. His contention of “overwhelming” evidence proving innocence in this case is completely off the mark. In fact, as my office began to investigate the case in greater detail, we raised questions about some of the tactics and methods that the students employed to gather information in the McKinney investigation. This included reports that the students had recorded witnesses without their knowledge or consent.

In addition, Professor Protess refused to tender to my office any and all relevant notes, memos or recordings that the students had gathered in their investigation that would allow us to examine this “overwhelming” evidence of innocence. As a result, we were forced to subpoena the materials from Medill.

Professor Protess and many of his students, including Benn, accused me of attempting to trample on the rights of student journalists. From the outset, my motives were taken entirely out of context. It was a shrewd public relations strategy, but one that totally unraveled as the facts in the case became public.

Ultimately, my office prevailed in a court of law after a Cook County judge ruled in September of 2011 that Protess and the students must surrender all materials that would be relevant to our re-investigation of this case, including more than 500 emails between Protess, the students and other university officials.

That court ruling led to an ugly scandal at the Medill School of Journalism.

McKinney’s lead attorney would go on to admit to university officials that she had received “a significant amount of materials” from Protess and the students that had never been tendered to my office, a clear violation of the proper rules of discovery in this litigation.

Since that sensational court finding in 2011, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has stood ready to proceed to a complete hearing to fully explore McKinney’s claim of innocence and to finally obtain an impartial ruling from a judge. Any delays that have occurred since that court ruling were requested by McKinney’s attorneys, who are attached to Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In the end, I find it most unfortunate that Benn continues to, without a full accounting of the facts, imply that I hold a grudge against innocence projects or that I would ignore evidence that would lead to a wrongfully convicted person’s exoneration. No other state’s attorney before me has done more to explore and correct the subject of questionable or wrongful convictions in Cook County and any unbiased examination of my record on this issue will clearly demonstrate this fact.

Anita Alvarez is the Illinois state’s attorney for Cook County, the nation’s second largest prosecutor’s office.

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