Prosecutors Claim 'Innocence Project' Journalism Students Paid Witnesses

from the gets-a-bit-more-complicated... dept

Last month, we thought it was quite excessive that states' attorneys in Illinois were asking for all sorts of information on the students who were involved in the Medill Innocence Project -- a journalism school investigative reporting effort that has helped free wrongly convicted individuals. The prosecutors were asking for information on the students' grades and private notes, which seemed to go beyond what seemed reasonable. However, now the prosecutors are claiming that the students may have paid witnesses for their interviews, which could raise questions about their authenticity (found via Romenesko). Of course, reading the details, it's not so clear cut. The students admit that they paid for the guy's cab fare, but it sounds like there was money left over from the cash they gave the cabbie, and he gave it to the interview subject (who then used it to buy drugs). That certainly makes it a little more clear as to why prosecutors were looking for more info, but it still seems like the overall request went beyond what was reasonable. It certainly looks more like an intimidation tactic than any attempt to get to the bottom of the case.


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  1.  
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    senshikaze (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 4:44am

    Wow, this whole thing is a clusterf*ck isn't it? i am not so sure who is wrong here. While what the prosecutors did earlier seemed a little extreme, the students didn't exactly use caution on the whole money thing. Seriously, wouldn't have been better to get a police officer with you and go to the witness? This is a school project right? I am sure they could get a county cop to ride along or something.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:11am

    Hmmm... is this the future of citizen journalism we are coming to?

     

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    Mark Levitt, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:20am

    British tabloids pay people all the time.

    Papers like The Sun and the Daily Express are always shelling out cash to get "exclusive" stories from people.

    It makes the students bad journalists, but I don't see how it makes them any more guilty of committing a crime.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:25am

    Re:

    "Hmmm... is this the future of citizen journalism we are coming to?

    Er, citizen journalism? They're in school FOR journalism, which would suggest to me that they're more in the traditional mold, no?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:27am

    Re: Re:

    Nope, I would say they have been entirely polluted by the ideals of crusade journalism, web style.

     

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    Michial Thompson, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:28am

    This is the EXACT reason why the earlier request was made

    This is exactly why the requests for the additional information was made. The students were not law enforcement officers, and are not bound by the same restrictions and policies that the officers are.

    The Prosecutor is still bound by the laws on what can and cannot be admitted to court, and is still subject to having any evidence thrown out if these laws are not followed.

    The prosecutor in this case is simply dotting his I's and crossing his T's. If these students do manage to free this guy from jail with the evidence they found, it's the prosecutors job to insure that they are releasing an innocent man and not just a lucky criminal that managed to work the system to their advantage.

    It's just as easy for the criminal to be wrongly released as it is for them to have been wrongly convicted.

    If these students get a convicted criminal released from jail, there is no going back and putting them back in jail if they are later found guilty of this same crime. Double jeopardy prevents that.

    These students NEED to be brought under a magnifying glass because the consequences of their actions could just as easily put a mass murderer back on the streets as it could be putting an innocent man back on the streets.

    They will not be held accountable if they release the mass murderer, but they will be praised for releasing the wrongly accused.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:32am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "crusade journalism"

    You mean like Glenn Beck?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:34am

    Is this in any way similar to paying for DNA analysis?

    Oh, and left over money from a cab fare was used to buy drugs ... just how much is a cab fare in new yuk?

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 5:45am

    Re:

    Actually, some of us are wondering how cheap drugs are in the Rotten Apple. Damn!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 6:08am

    OK, remember it's easy to "pay off" a person and not realize it. I buy dinner and pay for cabs for my friends because I'm just a nice guy. The amount of money doesn't seem all that substantial and I doubt the students gave it much thought, more like "Yea whatever, here's a few bucks, have a nice day!"

    In my line of work I can't even give my client a nutri-grain bar without crossing the line into bribery. The kids probably didn't even think of it as a bribe, and it was a pretty crappy bribe too if it was.

     

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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 6:59am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Crusade journalism! Like, the kind that seeks the truth no matter what? In the face of opposition, government strong-handed tactics, threats and intimidation? Journalism that doesn't roll over the second they are offered free lattes? Oh no, I fear for our future now.

     

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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:00am

    Re: Re:

    Maybe he just got some ibuprophen.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:02am

    Re:

    I'm pretty sure if you're trying to overturn a conviction in the Chicago area no cop- city or county is going to help you. This is intimidation pure and simple. They gave the cab driver $60, the guy made him stop 2 blocks away and got the change (which he wasn't supposed to). Since the guy basically incriminated himself in the interview, now he wants to make it look like he lied and the prosecutors in this state are tired of being embarrassed by false convictions. Why find out the truth when it can affect your career?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:09am

    Re: This is the EXACT reason why the earlier request was made

    Really- it's as easy to get a criminal wrongly released as convicted? It's next to impossible to overturn a conviction- the whole system is stacked against them. All the prosecutor needs to do is investigate the witnesses and evidence.
    The students wont be held accountable? Since when are prosecutors held accountable? They have immunity from almost everything.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:29am

    The problem is, the students and the program, have stated that they are not witnesses and they are not trying to take the place of the prosecutor department. they have just raised doubt enough to warrant further investigation but the real authorities responsible for investigating this. They are journalists, and the day that what a journalist uncovers is taken to court instead of law enforcement and the legal system doing their due diligence is bad bad day. The role of Journalism is to watch the legal system, not stand in for it.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:40am

    Re: British tabloids pay people all the time.

    Well, there is a small difference...well, maybe not so small. The students were part of a project to free convicted criminals. Papers like The Sun and the Daily Express are merely paying for stories. Since the former relates to potential evidence, and the latter is merely a story, the realm of interest by prosecutors is similarly different.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:41am

    Re: This is the EXACT reason why the earlier request was made

    I should have read your excellent post before I wrote mine. Good job.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:43am

    Re:

    You are probably overthinking this. No one ever said it was a bribe. The prosecutors more than likely heard from someone that money changed hands, they were trying to find out how much and whether the money might have influenced statements. Fundamentally, they were doing their job.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:48am

    Re: Re:

    Conversely, what if it turns out that the students had embarrassed themselves? Regardless of the motivation, prosecutors have a responsibility to make sure that the students did not do something that would cause problems in an actual court of law.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 7:52am

    Re:

    Well, a number of people have been released from prison based on what journalists have uncovered and had taken to court. I think they call that investigative journalism.

     

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  21.  
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    gren (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 8:22am

    Re: This is the EXACT reason why the earlier request was made

    No. That is not a reason to examine the students, it's a reason to examine the evidence that they have presented (of which their grades are irrelevant). If there was a problematic transfer of money then the prosecutor should be looking into that, of course, but that is not about the personal lives of the students, that is about fact finding on the case. If the students did something illegal such as coercing/bribing a witness to change testimony then you deal with that as a separate legal case. Looking for personal information is intimidation and should not be (and probably isn't) allowed.

     

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  22.  
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    Jambug, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 8:22am

    Just wondering

    Perhaps I'm dense, but how does paying for the information you retrieve from someone discount it's authenticity? Is not keeping informants on some form of 'retainer' standard practice not only in journalism but law enforcement?

     

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    TheStupidOne, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 8:46am

    Re: Just wondering

    well if the credibility of the witness is already in doubt, say if he is a drug addict, then paying him for information might just reduce his credibility even further, especially if the interviewer made it clear what he wanted to hear.

     

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  24.  
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    Brad Morrison, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 9:04am

    re: Citizen journalists

    The big question is whether current or proposed shield laws would/could/should curtail the prosecutor(s). I'm pretty sure that student journalists aren't protected, and I'd be surprised to learn that they would be protected by the new laws under consideration.

     

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  25.  
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    NullOp, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 9:05am

    Hey!

    Hey, you can't payoff witnesses! Only WE can payoff witnesses.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 9:17am

    "It's just as easy for the criminal to be wrongly released as it is for them to have been wrongly convicted."

    WTF? What world are you in? No, it is NOT just as easy for a criminal to be wrongly released as it is for an innocent person to be convicted. Bad conviction happen all the time for various reason, some good, some very very bad. But releases? Especially releases that are accompanined by that all important scrubbing of the record? No, those are not easy to come by and are in fact VERY rare. Even when they should be done it often takes years for the aggrieved person to get it all sorted.

     

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  27.  
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    jjmsan (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 9:22am

    Re: Re: British tabloids pay people all the time.

     

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  28.  
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    jjmsan (profile), Nov 12th, 2009 @ 9:24am

    Re: Re: British tabloids pay people all the time.

    The project examines evidence. It is not a project to free convicted criminals. It is there to see if the person was wrongly convicted. I think the interesting thing about this witness is that he is only reliable when he is saying what the prosecutors want him to say, otherwise it seems he lies.

     

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  29.  
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    Craylach, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 9:49am

    Trying to think of an argument for the relevance of the grades...

    The best I can come up eith is IF the faculty members routinely gave better grades to students who found evidence supporting innocence, then you could argue that this puts pressure on the students to invent said evidence. A stretch, but the only thing I can think of.

    Even so, seems like a clear cut violation of FERPA to turn over grades - though I admit to not being as up on what happens if FERPA intersects a criminal investigations.

     

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  30.  
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    Luci, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 11:25am

    Re: Re:

    '"This evidence shows that Tony Drakes gave his video statement upon the understanding that he would receive cash if he gave the answers that inculpated himself and that Drakes promptly used the money to purchase crack cocaine," according to the filing.'

    Sounds like someone is saying it was a bribe...

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 11:29am

    Re: Re: Re: British tabloids pay people all the time.

    Uh, no? The Innocence Project is, from their web site:

    "...a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice."

    What were you saying again about this not being "...a project to free convicted crimintals"? I suppose the word "free" may have been a poor choice, since exonerate was more appropriate, but in a layman's mind...

     

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  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 11:32am

    Re: Just wondering

    People have used the accusations of "payment" to discredit witnesses for the defense as well as the prosecution. Paying someone for information is routinely brought up in questioning, which helps jurors consider whether the witness had a motivation for lying.

     

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  33.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 11:39am

    Re: Re: This is the EXACT reason why the earlier request was made

    The students involved themselves in an on-going lawsuit. The moment they did that, they opened the door for prosecutors to investigate personal information of all kinds. All the prosecutor has to show is a reasonable logic for the probative value of the information. Since the subpoenas were granted by a judge, I can only assume that they provided sufficient information to show the personal information was relevant.

    Any time you get involved with the legal system you open yourself up to these sorts of things, either by a defense attorney (which probably happens more often than from a prosecuting attorney) or by a prosecuting attorney. Is it any wonder that a lot of people do not wish to come forward as a witness for the state?

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2009 @ 11:40am

    Re: Re: Re:

    I can see this statement as a reason to do a MASSIVE amounts of investigation of the students involved. Sounds like they may have crossed a line.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 6:23am

    The students that are part of this project go the my law school, and it's a clinic, not a class, so grades are irrelevant. They look into cases in which it seems like someone has been wrongly convicted, and through hours of research, interviewing, and eventually DNA testing, they attempt to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted. So focusing on the students' grades is just a ploy to discredit them, but it has no effect on the actual clinic, which is doing a wonderful and difficult job. I might also add that it is impossible for them to get someone that isn't actually innocent released...There is obviously much more judicial scrutiny and skepticism than there when the person was convicted.

     

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  36.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 7:02am

    Ignore my last comment, obviously didn't read the first article in this series. I confused the Innocence Project at a New York law school with this one. My apologies.

     

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