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Chicago professor who probed death penalty is sidelined

By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A Northwestern University journalism professor whose investigations of wrongful convictions were cited when Illinois recently banned the death penalty has been sidelined amid allegations that some of his students may have violated the law.

In a one-sentence e-mail, the university notified David Protess, the director of the Innocence Project, that he will not be teaching his investigative journalism class this spring.

That course, which Protess created 12 years ago and has taught ever since, has resulted in the exoneration of 12 prisoners, including five on death row.

But in the process, it has earned Protess the enmity of prosecutors whose work he and his students have criticized and ensnared him in a bitter battle with prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois, over the fate of Anthony McKinney, one of the prisoners the Innocence Project is trying to free.

McKinney was convicted of committing a 1978 murder. But defense lawyers are now pushing for his exoneration, citing the evidence that Protess and his students have uncovered.

That evidence includes, according to Protess, "recantations from the state's two star witnesses ... an air-tight alibi for McKinney himself and audiotaped interviews and affidavits from more than a half a dozen people who heard another man confess to the crime."

In addition, Protess said the alternative suspect identified by others had "himself confessed to being at the crime scene in a video-taped interview with my students."

Prosecutors allege that Protess's students illegally recorded at least one of the witnesses without consent while investigating the McKinney case. They have subpoenaed thousands of student notes, memos and other documents related to the McKinney case.

The University has turned over selected e-mail messages and other documents. But Protess has refused to comply, citing journalistic privilege, and has blasted the university for not doing so as well.

"Rather than admit that they had sought the death penalty for another innocent man, they retaliated by issuing a subpoena and trying to put us on trial," Protess told Reuters.

Protess said his stance had "understandably infuriated the university. They don't like it when their faculty members disagree with their legal decisions. And that has caused this latest retaliatory action."

In a statement, Al Cubbage, the school's spokesman, credited Protess and his students with "helping free wrongfully convicted individuals from prison. However, the laudable goal of the Innocence Project would not justify any improper actions that may have been taken by Professor Protess."

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher. Editing by Peter Bohan)