03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cook County Prosecutor Continues to Investigate Students for Trying to Free an Innocent Man

Cook County prosecutors continue in their relentless attempt to discredit the work of the students of Medill Innocence Project in their efforts to exonerate Anthony McKinney, whom they believe to be innocent. The prosecutor initially subpoenaed the personal records of the students on the grounds that the students were more interested in obtaining good grades than freeing the wrongly convicted. The prosecution's apparent theory is that this unsavory goal of attaining good grades somehow tainted the information obtained. On that basis, I would assume that every journalist who dreamed of a by-line, a front page story, a Pulitzer Prize, who was investigating government activity, could have their personal records examined -- people like Woodward and Bernstein investigating Watergate.

But apparently recognizing the absurdity of this position, the prosecutor now claims that the students paid witnesses. Anthony Drakes told the students in a video interview that he was at the murder scene but that Mr. McKinney was not. The students placed the witness in a cab and gave the driver $60. The prosecution claims $40 of that $60 was given to the witness by the driver pursuant to the student investigator's instructions. Or to put it simply -- the witness placed himself at the scene of a murder for $40! The former student involved claimed that the cab driver estimated the cost would be $50, so he gave him $60 to cover it. The prosecution claims that both the cab driver and his logs support their contention.

I cannot ignore this latter evidence, not for what it contains, but for what it signifies. It means that the prosecutor undoubtedly sent detectives into the field to interview the cab driver and inspect his logs. I am certain that the residents of Cook County will sleep better knowing that the prosecutor's office is devoting its time and manpower to investigate persons whose only crime is trying to free someone whom they believe was wrongfully convicted.

Finally, I suspect that there is nothing improper or illegal for journalists (or even lawyers) to compensate witnesses for their time and pay their expenses. But the irony of these charges is its source. The police pay informants everyday for information. Prosecutors offer criminals (not just witnesses) plea deals with reduced sentences everyday for cooperation and testimony in support of charges against others. Should the prosecutors' personal records be examined by the defense in order to determine what their motives were in making these deals?

The Medill Innocence Project was successful in exonerating 11 inmates and the Illinois governor cited those wrongful convictions in commuting the sentences of everyone on death row. One can understand that the prosecutor's office might be embarrassed as a result by the efforts of a bunch of journalism students, but such embarrassment does not warrant a vendetta against them. The prosecution should join in the righting of wrongful convictions not be investigating the students engaged in the effort, no matter what their personal motives may be. If they get a good grade for freeing an innocent person, they deserve it. Right now the prosecution is flunking.