Prosecutors Accuse Northwestern's 'Innocence Project' Of Ethics Violations

11/18/2010 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A project designed to expose and fix the errors of the justice system stands accused of committing a few errors itself.

Prosecutors allege that the Medill Innocence Project, a group associated with Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, committed ethics violations by having students make surreptitious recordings during their investigations.

It is generally illegal to record a conversation without the other party's consent in Illinois. State's attorneys said the students were unlikely to face criminal charges, as the statute of limitations for the charge has expired. But it raises "serious legal and ethical questions about the methods that the professor and his students employed during their investigation," State's Attorney Anita Alvarez wrote in a statement.

David Protess, however, paints quite a different picture.

The high-profile investigative reporter who heads the Medill Innocence Project says the students were well within the law in making the recording, which was done only out of concerns for their safety.

In 2004, students went downstate to interview Tony Drake, a man who they suspected was involved in the 1978 murder of security guard Donald Lundahl. Anthony McKinney is currently serving a life sentence for that murder.

According to the Chicago Tribune, they planned to play tapes for Drake of people saying he was involved in Lundahl's killing. Drake, who had been convicted of a previous murder, was deemed unstable, and there was cause for concern for the students' safety.

So one student wore a wire to the meeting, while the Project's private investigator Sergio Serritella listened in his car outside. When Drake began losing his cool, Serritella started recording the interview.

At least one attorney found that to be within the bounds of the law, the Trib reports:

The Innocence Project-affiliated lawyer who wrote the memo [on the legality of the wire] in 2006, Rebekah Wanger, wrote that she didn't think the students violated the state's eavesdropping statute because the law exempts recordings made with "reasonable suspicion" the recorded party will commit a crime against the recording party on tape.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the investigation into the recordings is just one skirmish in a prolonged battle between the Innocence Project and state prosecutors. The state, of course, thinks it got the right man in the Lundahl murder, and is reluctant to consider alternatives to its case. When Northwestern lawyers sought a new trial for McKinney, prosecutors responded by issuing subpoenas for all manner of records from the Project.

Media outlets lined up against the subpoenas, fearing an incursion into the privacy of sources. And legal experts and commentators alike have argued that the state is using the subpoenas to drag its feet on a case which it has little interest in seeing overturned.

Still, Alvarez and the state's attorney's office show no signs of letting up on the Project -- or, for that matter, on McKinney.

Suggest a correction