09/07/2011 03:16 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

Innocence Project Emails Must Be Turned Over By Northwestern University, Judge Rules

A Cook County judge ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University must turn over some 500 e-mails that student journalists at the school exchanged with Medill Innocence Project founder David Protess.

The e-mails detail the students' efforts to free a man serving a life sentence after being found guilty in a 1978 slaying -- a crime they believe, after several years of investigation, he did not commit.

Judge Diane Cannon ruled that the students were "acting as investigators in a criminal proceeding," not journalists, making the information they uncovered "subject to the rules of discovery," according to an AP report.

Northwestern had argued, however, that the e-mails were protected under the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act. The university has 10 days to file an appeal, though university spokeswoman Mary Jane Twohey told the Chicago Sun-Times the school "respect[s] the judge’s decision," which arrived after at least two years of legal back-and-forth.

“We will study it carefully and consider our options thoughtfully before we decide what our next steps will be," Twohey told the Sun-Times.

The case concerns the sentencing of Anthony McKinney, a prisoner convicted of killing a security guard, Donald Lundahl, in 1978 in Harvey, Illinois. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Northwestern lawyers nearly three years ago petitioned for a retrial of McKinney featuring evidence -- recanted testimony, alibi witnesses and additional interviews -- obtained during the Innocence Project's investigation.

The university was subpoenaed to turn over class syllabi, grades and a number of other materials in 2009, but had fought releasing the internal emails to authorities.

Sally Daly, spokeswoman for Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez, told ABC 7 her office was "extremely pleased with this ruling as it backs our position in this case from the outset." Alvarez had pressed the case and consistently questioned the ethics of Protess, who retired this year after the investigative methods he taught became the subject of what he and his students called a "smear campaign" by Alvarez's office.

Protess -- now president of the Chicago Innocence Project, an investigative journalism outfit founded earlier this year -- wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that he was "disappointed" by Cannon's ruling, the Sun-Times reports.