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Judge H. Lee Sarokin

Judge H. Lee Sarokin

Posted: July 19, 2010 11:30 PM

A Riddle: Who Saves Lives But Is Not a Doctor?

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I had the pleasure and honor this week to meet David Protess*, the founder and project director of the Medill Innocence Project, in which undergraduate journalism students at Northwestern University investigate miscarriages of justice. The Project gives priority to murder cases that result in the death penalty or sentences of life without parole. Any lawyer who represents defendants in such cases can tell you how draining, frustrating and emotional those cases are when convinced of the innocence of their client. Imagine the joy and hope for the convicted and counsel when along comes a group of fresh-faced, energetic college kids eager to help in the battle.

Professor Protess founded the Project in 1999. It has been incredibly successful, and its work was credited with the death penalty moratorium granted in Illinois. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what it must be like to be convicted, though innocent, and possibly face the death penalty, and then to learn that there are those outside of the system who care and want to help. For lawyers who assist in freeing an innocent person, there is no greater moment. The same certainly must be true for these journalism students. They, indeed, are in the business of saving lives.

Despite the nobility of their goal, their motives have recently been impugned by the prosecutors in the McKinney case by subpoenaing "the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students" Contrasted to that frivolous and insulting attack is their success in aiding the literally last minute stay of the execution of Henry Skinner in Texas. The Medill Project along with the lawyer driven Innocence Projects across the country spawned by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld serve an invaluable check on our criminal justice system. The innocent are wrongly convicted -- not often, but once is too many.

*Disclosure-he bought me dinner.