Anthony McKinney died last week, alone in an Illinois prison cell where he didn’t belong.
He was an innocent man. Our justice system failed him.
I know this because I took a deep dive into his case — a 1978 robbery and homicide of a security guard in a south Chicago suburb — as part of an investigative journalism class during my senior year at Northwestern University.
Although my peers, our professor and I uncovered what we believed to be overwhelming evidence that McKinney had been locked up for more than three decades for a crime he did not commit, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez decided to attack the messengers and derail McKinney’s fight for freedom.
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I was a 21-year-old student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism when I got involved in McKinney’s case in 2004. McKinney had been in prison for the murder of Donald Lundahl since before I was born. A judge in 1981 sentenced McKinney, 21 at the time, to life in prison without parole.
McKinney’s older brother, Michael, had persuaded my professor, David Protess, to look into the old murder, of which he claimed his brother was innocent.
Protess, whose reporting has led to the freedom of 13 wrongfully convicted men, put his students on the case. Our goal, he told us, was to find the truth, wherever that may lead.
Wide-eyed and eager to search for answers, we reopened the long-dormant case files and began digging. We conducted dozens of interviews, in prisons and on front porches, and combed through scores of public records. What we found pointed toward McKinney’s innocence.
The state’s two purported eyewitnesses in the case recanted to us their claims that they saw McKinney shoot Lundahl. The men told us the detectives in the case beat them into saying what the cops wanted.
McKinney, who we met in an emotional visit at Dixon Correctional Center, maintained — as he always had — that he was at home that night, Sept. 15, 1978, watching his hero, Muhammad Ali, defeat Leon Spinks in a 15-round heavyweight championship bout.
There was zero physical evidence linking McKinney to the crime — no murder weapon, no fingerprints, nothing. He was convicted based on bogus testimony from witnesses who admitted they were forced to lie, and from a confession form that McKinney signed after he said detectives bashed him with a metal pipe, their fists and feet.
Television time logs of the Ali-Spinks fight backed up McKinney’s alibi and poked more holes in the witnesses’ testimony about when they could have arrived at the crime scene. The timeline provided by the TV logs simply didn’t fit with the prosecution’s version of what happened that night in Harvey, Ill.
But, for me, the apex of our reporting was a videotaped interview we conducted with a violent ex-con named Tony Drake. We tracked down Drake after several people told us on the record that they heard Drake admit to the Lundahl murder after McKinney’s conviction.
So there we were, three college kids in Northwestern sweatshirts, confronting a known criminal in a public park near East St. Louis. With our camera rolling, Drake made an astonishing confession: He was there when Lundahl was gunned down, and McKinney was not present.
“You told us that Tony McKinney didn’t commit the crime of Donald Lundahl,” I said to Drake.
“No, Anthony McKinney didn’t,” he said.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Because I was there. That’s how I know that.”
Although he didn’t confess to being the triggerman, Drake went on to name accomplices. (Drake later recanted to state investigators what he told us.)
Videotape in hand, giddily driving back to Northwestern with my team, I figured it would be a matter of days before McKinney walked out of prison a free man.
That was in 2004. He never got out.
Maybe Alvarez, Chicago’s top prosecutor, was embarrassed by a stream of miscarriages of justice that Protess and his students had exposed in previous Cook County cases, before she took office. Or perhaps she was determined not to pay another wrongfully convicted prisoner millions in a civil rights suit, but Alvarez put her foot down.
She subpoenaed the university to turn over reams of our old emails, notes and grades. She alleged that we bribed and flirted with witnesses to get the information we wanted, and to get better grades. Alvarez claimed we weren’t real journalists, and therefore our unpublished materials were not subject to the Illinois Reporters Privilege that protects journalists from such legal requests.
Her campaign did nothing to answer the question of whether the prosecutor’s office had convicted an innocent man. It did, however, delay and delay and delay McKinney’s hearing on an innocence petition that Northwestern lawyers filed on his behalf.
When Alvarez made her accusations against us, in 2009, I told the Miami New Times that I remained cautiously optimistic that McKinney would be freed, and justice would prevail.
The truth is, I still felt that way, until I learned of McKinney’s death Tuesday night. Guards found him unresponsive in his locked cell, with food in his mouth. He was 53.
My emotions the past few days have pinballed from guilt to anger to sadness, punctuated by bursts of tears.
I have found some solace in talking with my former peers at Northwestern and with Protess, who now runs the Chicago Innocence Project. Protess has been in touch with McKinney’s family, who have arranged for his body to be buried at the foot of his father’s grave.
My heart cries out for them, particularly for Michael McKinney, a tireless defender of his brother’s innocence for the past 35 years. Michael McKinney called Protess this week, and it’s his words I’ll turn to whenever those feelings bubble to the surface, as I know they will for the rest of my life.
“They were never going to let my brother out,” Michael McKinney said to Protess on Thursday, “but now he is finally free.”
Evan S. Benn is a staff writer for the Miami Herald. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanBenn.