Report Cards in a Court of Law

Journalism students have their grades subpoenaed

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Illinois prosecutors have issued a subpoena to see the grades and notes of students in Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project. The journalism students were examining cases of possible wrongful conviction under the guidance of a professor. The case in question involved Anthony McKinney, who was convicted for killing a security guard with a shotgun. Prosecutors want to see if students who dug up evidence suggesting McKinney's innocence got higher grades.

Both journalism groups and legal specialists are apoplectic, saying their grades are irrelevant, that prosecutors have no right to that information, and that project's being targeted as revenge for winning eleven exonerations.

  • This Is Vengeance  Radley Balko at Reason magazine sets up the following scenario:
So you're a prosecutor in a county that has seen well more than its fair share of wrongful convictions over the years, including in several capital cases. Many of those innocence cases were uncovered by a journalism class at a nearby university. That class has just uncovered yet another possible wrongful conviction. What do you do?

If you're Cook County, Illinois State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, you harrass the journalism students.
  • Entire County Corrupt and Incompetent  Calling Cook County "the gift that keeps on giving," Bmaz of the Emptywheel blog says Chicago and the county "have a certain reputation for political corruption, police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct." Nevertheless, This is "[a] new chapter in heavy handedness," Bmaz writes, and "'fishing expedition' would be far too kind of a term" for it. The problem is that "the Innocence Project has repeatedly made a mockery of their shabby work on capital cases, and now they are on the cusp of doing it again in the McKinney case."
  • What On Earth Do Their Grades Have to Do With It?  James Joyner at Outside the Beltway isn't buying this, either:
Without probable cause to believe criminal action on part of the students, the state has no right to any of this material.  And why would it matter if the students thought they would get better grades for getting provocative statements?  Surely, people aren’t going to confess to crimes or commit otherwise commit perjury in order to help out some rich college students they don’t know.
  • Totalitarian Tactics  Retired federal judge H. Lee Sarokin thinks this is "a flagrant attempt to intimidate," and writes that, while he generally loathes Holocaust comparisons, he "truly believe[s] that the attempt of prosecutors to subpoena 'the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of their journalism students themselves' ... warrants and deserves the Gestapo label."
  • 'Contempt for the Law'  Law professor Darren Hutchinson, outlining four reasons why the subpoena is illegal and unconstitutional, is similarly adamant: "Illinois prosecutors are blatantly using the strong arm of the state to harass Medill journalism students. The prosecutors' behavior evinces a deep contempt for the law, which makes the students' efforts to uncover wrongful convictions even more compelling."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.