Judge Should Laugh Subpoena Request out of Courtroom

11/10/2009 10:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Anita Alvarez is a menace to your freedom.

That's why you should care about Alvarez's bid to force my Medill colleague David Protess to open his grade book to prosecutors as they attempt to -- well, I still haven't figured out what Alvarez and her cohort are attempting to do, because it is baffling on almost every front.

The case in question is that of a man who has been in jail for more than 30 years, convicted of killing another man. Student journalists in Protess' investigative journalism course have said they have new evidence that exonerates Anthony McKinney. The judge scheduled a hearing on the matter; Alvarez has asked the judge to force Protess and the students to turn over their notes, their grades, the course syllabus and other items pertaining to the students' investigation, as a way, apparently, to poke holes in the effort to free McKinney.

As many, including Protess, have pointed out, you would think Alvarez would be fighting the case on its merits -- pointing out the solidity of the state's case that sent McKinney to prison to begin with -- rather than launching an ad hominem attack on the methods of the student journalists who say they have evidence that will set McKinney free.

What Alvarez is doing is dumb.

You may think it doesn't affect you: You're not a journalist, you're not a college student, you're not in jail for a murder you may or may not have committed.

You're wrong.

It matters urgently to you and to everyone because it's an attempt by prosecutors to perpetrate one of the starkest erosions of constitutional rights to due process.

Not to mention that the request for student grades violates federal privacy statutes -- we as teachers can't even talk about a student's grades among ourselves and are forbidden from telling a student's parent his or her academic record without the student's express consent.

But by even talking about privacy and grades, Alvarez is forcing us into parsing something so far afield as to be laughable.

At root, we're talking about a man who has been in prison for murder who may have been convicted in error.

Don't we owe him, at the very least, a hearing on the merit of the evidence? Even if the state's record was unblemished in cases such as this, I don't think bleeding hearts are alone on this one. Whenever society is going to accuse someone of a crime so grave as murder, it owes itself the assurance that the accused is guilty.

The speculation is that Alvarez hopes to show that performance in the class was tied to getting dirt that would free the subject of the investigation and that students may have been motivated less by truth and more by grade.

I spoke this week with a former student of mine, who had Protess' course about 10 years ago and worked on a different case. She is offended -- as offended as all of us at Medill are -- by Alvarez's presumptions. "No one in the class was there for the grades," she said. "We didn't pile into my car at 6 a.m. to drive more than an hour to the South Side to interview eyewitnesses, or spend hours in a law office conference room poring over documents, for our GPA. We were there as journalists, learning to be better journalists."

I have news for Alvarez -- and this is apparently something she has a troublingly dim understanding of -- we journalists are concerned about justice, not about poking a thumb in the eye of the system. It may be hard for her to discern the difference, but I would hope that the county's chief prosecutor would understand the meaning of justice and see that we are working for it, as she should be.

The reason there is a need for journalists at all is because the power of the state is too great. Unchecked, it is far too great. Journalists give each of us a way to be heard when power is arrayed against us.

It's simple. And it's sad that Alvarez doesn't get it.

It's sadder still that Cook County is saddled with this out-of-her-depth prosecutor for at least another three years.

UPDATE: Three twenties?

So now we see what has Anita Alvarez so vexed: Someone working to learn whether a man jailed for 31 years for a murder he may not have committed is guilty or innocent slipped a cabbie $60 to take a witness home after an interview, and there was no way, Alvarez contends, the ride could have cost that much.

So, y'know, that constitutes a payment to the witness for testimony, which, y'know, would then impugn the integrity of the witness.

Alvarez, with this revelation, descends into the pantheon of Chicago politicians who make us a laughingstock.

Let's hope the judge has little patience for this thin broth and gets on with the business of whether McKinney has paid 31 years of his life for a crime someone else committed.

It sounds to me as though the Cook County state's attorney's office could use an infusion of student prosecutors.