EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — David Protess and his students at Northwestern University have helped free innocent men from Illinois prisons.
But now, it appears Northwestern and the star journalism professor and the university are not on the same page.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, the Daily Northwestern student newspaper reported that Protess will not be teaching his investigative reporting course for the upcoming spring quarter.
Students who planned to take the course have signed a petition asking university officials to reconsider, or else they will drop the class.
Protess told the Daily Northwestern that he will go on serving as director of the Medill Innocence Project, which has been behind investigations that brought freedom to more than 10 inmates wrongly convicted of murder – some even from Death Row.
But Protess tells the newspaper that he is not sure whether the project will be attached to any class anymore.
In the petition, students say they were never told before Thursday that Protess would not be teaching his class in the spring quarter, and many students were extremely disappointed.
“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,” the petition said.
Protess and his students made headlines in 1999, when after months of digging for clues, they found evidence that Anthony Porter did not commit the 1982 murders of which he was convicted and sentenced to death.
“We all feel collectively outraged that Anthony Porter was allowed to sit on death row for 16 years in the first place, and came within hours of being executed,” Protess told reporters at the time. “That’s a sobering thought.”
Porter had been convicted of killing two teens – Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard – in Washington Park in August 1982, and was sentenced to death. But the man who implicated Porter recanted his claims to a Northwestern student in 1999, saying police had tortured him into fingering Porter.
The case was the catalyst for Gov. George Ryan’s decision to put a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000, after it was discovered that 13 innocent people were on death row. Just last week, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill banning the death penalty in Illinois.
But Protess and his Innocence Project have since come under controversy, in connection with another case.
Protess and his students said Anthony McKinney had been wrongly convicted of the 1978 murder of a security guard in Harvey.
Two years ago, Cook County prosecutors subpoenaed notes and recordings from the Innocence Project. Among the information subpoenaed was students’ grades, private e-mails and Protess’ syllabus.
Prosecutors said they wanted to investigate whether the students may have skewed their findings to get a good grade, a claim Protess and his students denied from the beginning.
Northwestern officials now question whether Protess ever turned over all the evidence, and whether he was completely honest about what he turned in, according to the Chicago Tribune. The university, according to the newspaper, spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses.
A document published by Protess says he stands behind the work of his students and McKinney’s innocence.