CHICAGO (STMW) – Northwestern University journalism students probing whether a convicted murderer should be set free used secret recording devices to interview witnesses — possibly violating state law, Cook County prosecutors said Wednesday.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on how many times this tactic was used and with what witnesses,” Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack told Judge Diane G. Cannon Wednesday.

Later Wednesday, Stack’s boss, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, issued a statement criticizing the university and a professor for taking so long to turn over documents and said the “tactics revealed in court today . . . raise serious legal and ethical questions.”

It’s illegal in Illinois to secretly record conversations without a judge’s permission.

The revelation is the latest development in the prosecution’s drawn-out fight to obtain notes and other materials from students at Northwestern’s Medill Innocence Project looking into the case of Anthony McKinney, who has served more than 30 years for the 1978 murder of Donald Lundahl in Harvey. The students believe another man, Tony Drake, is responsible for Lundahl’s slaying, but prosecutors don’t agree.

McKinney remains in prison while the state’s attorney investigates the Innocence Project’s claims. McKinney is seeking a new trial; prosecutors have subpoenaed the project’s records in response.

Judge Cannon Wednesday granted the prosecution’s request that any original secret recordings — and the devices used to make those recordings — be preserved.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez, said it’s too early to say whether the secret recordings could result in criminal charges.

“We haven’t had time to fully evaluate it,” Daly said. “We don’t know to what extent it was going on.”

Earlier this month, in response to a subpoena, prosecutors received a copy of a secret tape recording made when Northwestern students interviewed Drake in 2004, who has said in a videotaped statement that McKinnney had nothing to do with Lundahl’s slaying. But prosecutors say the recording is a poor copy, and they want to listen to the original to see if it’s been edited.

Prosecutors say notes they’ve received in response to a subpoena for materials from the Northwestern investigation indicate “several occasions” of secret recordings, including a cell phone conversation made in Wisconsin about six years ago.

Charles Sklarsky, an attorney representing Northwestern, told Cannon he doesn’t know who authorized the secret recordings.

“That’s a subject we’ll look into,” Sklarsky said. “I can assure you the university does not condone the use of eavesdropping devices in violation of any statute.”

Tom Breen, an attorney representing a private investigator who worked with the students looking into the McKinney case, handed the Drake secret recording over to prosecutors, and said it’s unlikely the students broke the law.

“It was used one time, never used before, never used after,” Breen said after Wednesday’s hearing. “This was an exceptional, very dangerous mission the students were on.”

Alvarez’s statement said it was “unfortunate that it took Northwestern University and its professor 18 months to respond to a court subpoena to turn over these relevant documents while Mr. McKinney has remained in prison awaiting his post conviction hearing.

“Tactics such as those revealed in court today are even more unfortunate and raise serious legal and ethical questions about the methods that the professor and his students employed during their investigation.’’

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