Illinois prosecutors’ subpoena to student journalists smacks of harassment

It is hard to know where to start in describing what is wrong with the Cook County, Illinois, district attorney’s attempt to compel disclosure of student records underlying investigative journalistic work by students at Northwestern University.

The dispute between Northwestern’s Innocence Project and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was well-explored in a recent New York Times article, reflecting the national attention that the case is properly receiving.

It is of course troubling that the government is arguing, wrongly, that the journalism students investigating the murder case against Anthony McKinney are not “real” journalists protected by Illinois’ shield law.

The purpose of shield laws is to protect the integrity of the newsgathering process. If a third party with no stake in the outcome gathers information about a crime for the purpose of informing the public, then that person is doing legitimate journalistic work worthy of protection – period.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the prosecution’s tactics fundamentally misconstrue the way the justice system works and where the burden of proving guilt lies.

First, the prosecution suggests that the “truth seeking process” requires disclosure of all notes and conversations with all witnesses, not just the interviews that the Innocence Project has publicly distributed (and made available to the DA’s office already).

But the prosecution is never entitled to the background material concerning defense witnesses – because it is the defendant’s burden only to raise a reasonable doubt about guilt, not to “prove his innocence.” If the prosecution thinks there are other witnesses who incriminate McKinney, then the justice system makes it their burden to locate those witnesses, not the burden of journalists to help them. The prosecution is trying to use the Innocence Project as a vehicle to obtain information that it could never constitutionally obtain from McKinney’s legal team directly.

Second is the prosecution’s rank speculation that the Innocence Project team may have influenced witnesses to give statements favorable to McKinney. The prosecutors’ implication is that the students had a motive to shade the evidence because, they theorize, a successful exoneration of a convicted killer would mean a better grade. Yet despite having access to all of the witnesses cited in the students’ reporting, prosecutors have come forward with no statement from any witness claiming to have been pressured or coached.

Attorneys for McKinney should immediately respond with a subpoena for the personnel files for all prosecutors in the Cook County District Attorneys’ Office, to document whether prosecutors are rewarded with higher pay, promotions and commendations for obtaining convictions. Same for any police agency that worked on the McKinney case.

Under State’s Attorney Alvarez’s theory, any connection between career advancement and convictions would prove a motive for police and prosecutors to coach witnesses and conceal evidence. Surely she should have no objection to making that information available – you know, “truth seeking process” and all.

Of course, this won’t happen. Of course, the District Attorney would argue – correctly – that until a witness comes forward and swears to having been tampered with, a mere motive to coax or coerce favorable testimony is no proof that it happened. And until State’s Attorney Alvarez can produce sworn testimony that a witness in the McKinney case was coached by the Innocence Project, she should disavow her office’s harassment tactics, which impugn and endanger a valuable program.