Man Dies in Prison Still Fighting for Exoneration

Posted: September 4, 2013 in Justice, News
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Anthony McKinney, 53, was fighting for a new trial he will never get.  He died Wednesday.  He was a teenager when he confessed to shooting and killing a security guard in 1978.  He claimed that his confession was coerced and that police beat him with pipes.  In 2008, the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions took on his case thanks to the work of journalism students at the Medill Innocence Project.

Executive Director Rob Warden said, “We came up with what we think is really overwhelming evidence that he was innocent and yet there was almost a five-year period that we never got a hearing.”

McKinney was found unresponsive in his cell.  Foul play is not suspected and no cause of death has been determined.  His attorney said that his death shows the need to more quickly look at the possibility of innocence in convicted defendant’s cases.  If not for the delays, his attorneys say, he might have had his name cleared and saw the outside of prison before his tragic death.  This case became not just a question of wrongful conviction, but also Freedom of the Press.  After the Medill Innocence Project took on McKinney’s case, the grades, research, class syllabuses, and emails of students working at the Journalism school and on the case were subpoenaed by the state attorney’s office, in what they termed a “truth seeking process”.  The University’s lawyer, Richard O’Brien, told at the time that the Cook County, Illinois prosecutors focused too much attention on the academic history of students working at the Innocence Project and not enough on Anthony McKinney.

“The prosecution is saying that maybe the grades of the students were skewed in a way to incentivize them to try and find evidence of innocence,” O’Brien told

At the time, the school worried that investigating students erroneously would lead some to not participate in the Innocence Project.

“We’ve uncovered 11 instances of wrong convictions — we ought to be applauded by the state, but instead we’re constantly being put under a microscope,” O’Brien said.

The students began researching McKinney’s case in 2003 on the advice of his brother, Michael McKinney.  Three years later and 30 students on the case, the group was certain that it was not McKinney, but two other men who shot and killed a security guard.  McKinney was convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life.  Presented with the group’s findings in 2006, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Law School filed a post-conviction petition in October 2008 in the Cook County Circuit Court, requesting that McKinney’s prison term either be vacated or he be given a new trial.

Prosecutors sought the documents because they were not “well-informed” about the class and they wanted to make sure there was “no bias”.  Specifically, they were concerned that the students were told they would get a better grade if they found exculpatory evidence.  The prosecution argued that the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act, which prevents journalists from being required to turn over sources, did not protect the students or their professor David Protess.  Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez defended the decision, “If you’re going to put yourself into the role of an investigator, then you need to turn over whatever your notes are.”

The subpoena was highly unusual.  Phyllis Goldfarb, a professor of Law at George Washington University said, “This is an investigative journalism class at a major university,” she said. “One of the fundamental themes of any journalism class is integrity and objectivity, so the innuendo that the [state attorney] would find something in these documents that would say a student was offered an ‘A’ if they found the man innocent is an attack on the integrity of the institution…I understand why the university would want to resist it.”

O’Brien denied the allegation that the students were motivated to find McKinney innocent for a better grade.

“The witnesses are going to say what they’re going to say, and we didn’t make up testimony and we didn’t speak on behalf of the witnesses,” O’Brien said.

Students involved in this program have never been asked to turn over their records or personal information before or since.  Don Craven, the executive director of the Illinois Press Association, expressed worry about the precedent the prosecution was setting, “The practice impact of what the prosecution is doing in this case is undermining the work…and the Project as a whole.  If people are worried that a U.S. attorney could come knocking on your door to get your notes, how willing will these students be to continue doing their jobs, and how willing will people be to come talk to you…”

“This is a dangerous precedent if the state is entitled to get these materials,” said O’Brien.

The state claimed that the students were acting as investigators for McKinney and they had a right to look into them.  Medill faculty member David Protess was suspended during this dispute and left the project in 2011 to found the Chicago Innocence Project.  He didn’t want to give the state the records, but the school provided the records to prosecutors.

David Protess’ statement to the Chicago Reader:

“Few tragedies are worse than the imprisonment of an innocent man, but one is that man’s death. With the passing of Anthony McKinney, it is as if prosecutors finally got the death penalty they sought 35 years ago. I feel great sadness for his family, his advocates, my former students and everyone who believed in justice for this gentle man. His death reminds us that compelling evidence of innocence does not ensure freedom without a commitment to justice by those in authority.”


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