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Chicago student-journalists probed for motives

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A group of university students who claim their research exonerated a convicted murderer were in court themselves on Tuesday, accused of sloppy work and credibility problems.

Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez has issued a subpoena demanding e-mails, grades and other information from Northwestern University students in journalism professor David Protess' graduate classes from 2003 to 2006.

Alvarez's office said the students' interviews and affidavits, which drew the conclusion that Anthony McKinney was wrongly convicted in 1982 of the 1978 murder of a security guard, is full of holes.

McKinney had asked the university's Innocence Project for help, saying police had pressured him years ago to confess. The project, run by journalism Professor David Protess, has succeeded in producing evidence that since the mid-1990s has led to the exoneration of 11 convicted inmates, including five men on Death Row.

The project's well-publicized success has won it a good reputation, and prosecutors investigate their findings.

The students interviewed witnesses from McKinney's 1982 trial, some of whom recanted. They also turned up new witnesses, including a man who said he was present when two other men, one of them now dead, shot the guard.

In Tuesday's submission in support of the subpoena of students' e-mails and grades, which the school is fighting, prosecutors argued that the students' investigation was flawed and may have included pay-offs to witnesses.

Prosecutors said they want to know if the students' motivation to find exculpatory evidence was driven by a quest for better grades.

In the instance of the witness who identified other men, prosecutors said he bought crack cocaine with change from $60 cab fare paid for by a student.

Witnesses said students had "flirted" with them and provided them meals and small amounts of money, according to prosecutors.

HEAT, NOT LIGHT

Protess said outside the court the accusations were false, and he was prepared to bring in students he awarded A's who did not find any such exculpatory evidence in another case.

On the other hand, Protess said the prosecutors deserved an "F" for inaccuracies.

"The question is what does Anita Alvarez have to fear? Is she embarrassed that the state sought the death penalty against a man who is now shown to be innocent?" he said.

In a heated confrontation on Tuesday in a Cook County criminal court filled with some two-dozen students, Judge Diane Cannon chastised the students' attorney, saying his brief to the court was "dripping with sarcasm that is so irrelevant to the law it is reprehensible."

The judge invited Protess to stop talking to students in the courtroom or leave. He walked out with students in tow.

Prosecutors argued in their filing Protess' students were learning investigative techniques and did not publish articles about their work. Therefore they are criminal investigators, not reporters protected under Illinois' shield law that keeps sources and notes out of the hands of authorities.

Protess said his students are reporters -- they publish blogs -- and are solely motivated to find out the truth.

There are more than 50 "Innocence Projects" around the United States that take on cases, most run by lawyers. Using DNA and other evidence, they have exonerated dozens of convicted murderers.

The resulting outcry over wrongful convictions has been part of the reason that the number of U.S. executions fell to a 14-year low of 37 in 2008.

Former Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in the state in 2000, and he later cleared the state's Death Row, citing the Northwestern students' work.

Evan Benn, a former student of Protess' and now a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the subpoena creates a "chilling effect" that could deter student-led investigations of questionable cases that otherwise might languish.

"(The prosecutors) should be investigating the evidence that we turned over."

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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