Prosecutors accuse former Medill students of paying off witnesses

ILLINOIS — Prosecutors for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office haveaccused students who worked on the Medill Innocence Project at NorthwesternUniversity of paying off two witnesses in a three-year investigation of themurder conviction of Anthony McKinney.

The brief filed by the prosecutors says that in May 2004, former Medillstudents paid for a cab to take home Anthony Drakes, a witness to the case whospoke with the student investigators. The students allegedly gave the taxidriver $60 and told the driver to give $40 to Drakes, according to the Chicago Tribune. The fare for Drakes’s ride was $6.

“This evidence shows that Tony Drakes gave his video statement uponthe understanding that he would receive cash if he gave the answers thatinculpated himself and that Drakes promptly used the money to purchase crackcocaine,” stated the prosecutors’ filing.

Evan Benn, the student accused of paying off Drakes, told the AssociatedPress he gave the cab driver $60 because the driver said the ride would costabout $50.

“We never paid Tony Drakes for his statement, we would never pay anysource,” Benn said to the AP.

Prosecutors also said the students took Michael Lane, another witness, outfor cocktails and dinner at a Golden Corral restaurant in Kenosha, Wis.Prosecutors allege the students gave Lane between $50 and $100 in cash for hisstatements.

Professor David Protess, the director of the Medill Innocence Project,denied the accusation of the payments, said the Chicago Tribune.

According to the Medill Innocence Project’s Web site, over athree-year period from 2003 to 2006, students working on the Medill InnocenceProject investigated the case of Anthony McKinney, who has spent the past 31years in prison for the 1978 murder of security guard Donald Lundahl in Harvey,Ill., a southside suburb of Chicago.

During their investigation, the student journalists became convinced ofMcKinney’s innocence, and they shared the case with the NorthwesternUniversity School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. In late 2008, apost-conviction petition to rehear the case was accepted and put on the docketby Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Cannon, said the Project’s Website.

On May 20, Protess, the journalism professor leading the Medill InnocenceProject, received a subpoena demanding all notes and electronic communicationscreated for the case, the grades of the students working on the case, a copy ofthe course syllabus for the Innocence Project class and receipts for expensesincurred during the investigation, among other materials.

With Northwestern University’s support, the Medill Innocence Projectretained the services of Richard J. O’Brien and Linda R. Friedlieb ofSidley Austin LLP. On Aug. 13, counsel for Protess filed a motion to quash thesubpoena. The motion cited the Illinois reporter shield law, as well as federaleducational privacy laws. Cook County State’s Attorneys filed a motionSept. 14 to deny the petition to quash the subpoena. Friedlieb and O’Brienfiled their response Oct. 5, according to the Project’s Web site.

The next hearings for the case are scheduled for Jan. 11.