Wrongfully Banishing Professor David Protess – by Stephen Lendman
On March 18, Chicago Tribune writers Matthew Walberg and Dan Hinkel headlined, “Northwestern at odds with star professor,” saying:
“Cook County prosecutors sparked a media firestorm nearly two years ago when they subpoenaed notes, recordings, and even grades of (his) students (because of their work proving) Anthony McKinney had wrongly been convicted of a 1978 murder.”
The battle sparked a feud between Northwestern and Protess, whose Medill Innocence Project uncovered numerous wrongful murder convictions, culminating when former Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment in 2000 after 13 prisoners were found innocent and released.
On January 11, 2003, two days before leaving office, he then cleared death row, commuting sentences for 163 men and four women to life imprisonment. He also declared a moratorium on future executions, now banned after Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation last March, saying it’s impossible “to create a perfect, mistake-free death penalty system.”
Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism’s Protess, also Medill Innocence Project Director, was “a superstar (investigative) professor, leading teams of students (to uncover 13) wrongful death penalty convictions….One was just hours from execution.”
Medill Dean John Lavine, however, suspended him by email, with no further comment about his future. In fact, he was effectively fired, Lavine privately suggesting he wouldn’t be welcomed back.
It was a textbook case of academic lynching, affecting a distinguished professor deserving high honors, not denigration and banishment.
Northwestern’s statement said in part:
“There have been recent media reports regarding the conduct of David Protess (and his) Medill Innocence Project….Northwestern has been conducting its own review of (his) actions and practices….It served as the basis for Northwestern’s response to subpoenas issued by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.” Despite his laudable work, his “Innocence Project (goal) would not justify any improper actions,” despite no legitimate evidence proving any.
On March 18, The Daily Northwestern’s Brian Rosenthal headlined, “Updated: NU removes David Protess as professor of Investigative Journalism in spring,” saying:
His removal “leave(s) the future of the class unclear. In an interview, Protess said he will continue to serve as director of the Innocence Project, but he doesn’t know if the project will continue to be involved with the class….”
At the time, he also said he’s “committed to continuing our investigations in these cases. Innocent prisoners should not be punished for the dean’s decision….The innocent prisoners in jail transcend anything going on at Northwestern. I’m not going to neglect the cause.”
In addition, he expressed disappointment “because last quarter’s class was the best group of students I’ve taught in years.”
The eight undergraduates in his spring class petitioned Medill’s Senior Director of Undergraduate Education Michele Mitoun saying:
“If removing Protess is part of an effort by the University to discipline him for defending the integrity of the Innocence Project to which he and decades of students have given so much, please know that you are not punishing Prof. Protess half as much as you are his students, and the two men still sitting behind bars.”
Dozens of alumni also petitioned Northwestern and Medill, saying:
“We are writing to request a public explanation of the facts surrounding the apparent removal of Professor Protess. In particular, we would like to know the reasons for (his) removal, and your explanation of why this action was necessary and is in the best interests of Medill and Northwestern.”
Former students like Evan Benn, now a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter called Protess’ class “life-changing.” Another, Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said he was “incredibly professional.” Paul Ciolino added:
“If you look at this thing 30 to 40 years from now, Protess will be a beloved figure that they’ll be building statues about.”
The Northwestern Faculty Senate passed a motion expressing “deep concern” over the way Protess was treated.
Former Medill Dean (1989 – 1996), now Columbia University Journalism Professor, Michael Janeway said he zealously pursued a cause, one “you could not question.”
On June 19, New York Times writers David Carr and John Schwartz headlined, “A Watchdog Professor, Now Defending Himself,” saying:
Renown Journalism Professor Protess “spent three decades fighting to prove the innocence of others has been locked in a battle to do the same for himself. It hasn’t gone as well.”
In fact, spurious practices he’s accused of include deceptive tactics, cooperating with defense lawyers (that “negates a journalist’s legal privilege to resist subpoenas”), “whether he altered an email to cover up that cooperation,” and giving his students better grades for uncovering evidence that, in fact, was their job to do in wrongful conviction cases.
In addition, his students are bogusly charged with allegedly paying off a witness and misrepresenting themselves.
They and Protess vigorously deny all accusations, calling them a malicious smear campaign by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Dean Lavine became party to it by claiming, without justification, that Protess “knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions,” compromising his own character and academic freedom by saying so.
In mid-June, Protess “retired from Northwestern altogether (effective August 31),” while continuing to run the Innocence Project, saying:
“I have spent three decades exposing wrongful convictions only to find myself in the cross hairs of others who are wrongfully accusing me.”
He also believes he’s been criticized and denigrated for defending his students and occasional lapses of memory, the latter, of course, affecting everyone without facing accusations of wrongdoing.
On June 13, Protess said he’s now President of the Chicago Innocence Project, continuing his investigative work non-profit.
According to George Washington University Professor Mark Feldstein:
Protess “is in the hall of fame of investigative journalists in the 20th century. Using cheap (very willing) student labor, he has targeted a very specific issue. That work has reopened cases, changed laws, and saved lives.”
Protess said Dean Lavine initially supported him, but now knows it was a charade, saying:
It was “an attempt to seem as if he were fighting for the First Amendment when, in fact, he was undermining the Innocence Project at every turn,” no doubt for an ulterior motive perhaps benefitting himself at the expense of truth, justice and integrity.
On May 11, Daily Northwestern writer Brian Rosenthal headlined, “In Focus: ‘Dismantling of a legacy:’ The rise and fall of David Protess,” saying:
Barely a decade after founding the Medill Innocence Project, he’s now “barred from teaching his trademark class, publicly vilified by his dean,” and forced to “take a ‘leave of absence’ that few realistically think will ever end.” He’s also “reportedly (barred from) enter(ing) the building.”
Medill Professor Michele Weldon said:
“I think everything about the situation is tragic. It is tragic for David, the students, the faculty, the schools, the alums, all the people who are affected by the Innocence Project and individuals who hope to be recipients of the work” it performs.
As a result, he made enemies in high places, especially state and local prosecutors, unhappy to have their wrongful convictions exposed and overturned.
In fact, they’re a national cancer, mostly affecting innocent Blacks and Latinos, wrongfully sentenced to death and murdered by authorities who know it and don’t care. Others are imprisoned for life when officials won’t admit errors and release them because America’s corrupted prison industrial complex thrives on adding inmates, justice be damned to do it.
Author Michelle Alexander calls it “The New Jim Crow” in her book by that title, calling mass incarceration a modern-day caste system created by elitist racists who embrace colorblindness. As a result, imprisonment became a politically charged social control instrument, unrelated to crime.
Exposing it by combining investigative journalism and advocacy for justice earned Protess the distinction he deserves. Denigrating him is contemptible and shameless. It also taints Northwestern, Medill and Dean Lavine for compromising inviolable academic and speech freedoms.
The Innocence Project (IP)
Full information on it can be found through the following link, now continued by Protess’ Chicago Innocence Project (CIP):
Founded in 1999, IP’s mission statement says it “engages undergraduate journalism students….in investigative reporting of miscarriages of justice, with priority given to murder cases that resulted in sentences of death or life without parole. Our goal is to expose wrongdoing in the criminal justice system.”
Until his wrongful banishment, Protess helped free innocent prisoners, saved from lethal injections or other ways to murder them. He’ll now continue that heroic mission as President of his newly opened Chicago Innocence Project, an initiative vitally important to continue, especially by someone of his distinction and commitment.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.