The recent questions raised by Cook County state's attorney over eavesdropping by the students of the Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project, in the murder case of Anthony McKinney, may actually serve to place the activities of their project on firmer legal ground and make them more accountable to the university.
As part of what some observers see as organizational payback rather than investigation of criminal conduct, the state's attorney's office has received over 800 pages of internal project records. Besides those dealing with the students' investigation, prosecutors asked for personal information about the students, much of which is usually protected by student privacy laws that apply to educational institutions.
Some of the requested documents revealed the surreptitious recording of a witness in the Mckinney case by the students. In Illinois it is illegal to record anyone without their knowledge or consent, without a court authorization. However, the law itself contains an exception that clearly applies to the students situation." ...the law exempts recordings made with "reasonable suspicion" the recorded party will commit a crime against the recording party on tape."
The students were afraid of possible bodily harm by the man, described in a memo as a convicted killer. This exemption has yet to be tested in court. Also, the statute of limitations has run out for filing charges on this incident. It would appear that the publicity over this eavesdropping is not about prosecuting possible criminal conduct but rather about scoring negative publicity points against the Innocence project.
However, the faculty member heading the project has acknowledged lack of oversight and guidance for the students' activities. Professor David Protess stated, "I made a tradeoff for the education of my student, and I think that we now need policies and procedures that will ensure a balance between journalistic freedom and the security of our records."
It appears that both Protess and university administration are working on developing formalized guidelines and consultation for the project's activities in the future. The university has hired former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas and a second former federal prosecutor, Gabriel Fuentes to conduct a review of the Innocence Project.
The outcome of this should be university policies that not only guard against potentially illegal practices but also safeguard the safety of the students involved in the work of the Project. Work which is continuing to investigate questionable capital convictions by the state, that may save additional innocent lives and continues to ask : what about the real perpetrators ?