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Challenging death: How undergraduates take on the justice system

When the US Supreme Court stayed the scheduled March 24 execution of Henry “Hank” Skinner, it handed another victory to a Chicago undergraduate journalism programme that has helped wrongfully convicted men get justice and escape the death penalty.


Barely an hour before Henry “Hank” Skinner was scheduled to face death by lethal injection in Texas on March 24 at 6pm local time, the US Supreme Court stayed the execution, granting the convicted murderer a temporary reprieve. It was also yet another victory for a ground-breaking journalism school project that has provided a check on US justice and law enforcement for more than a decade.

Founded in Chicago in 1999, the Medill Innocence Project, which is part of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, gives undergraduate students firsthand experience in investigating possible miscarriages of justice under the tutelage of its director, David Protess.

Of the 50 cases the project has taken up, 11 have led to exonerations, five of which involving inmates who were on death row. Two indicated solid evidence of guilt. The rest are under review by the judiciary or were inconclusive.

The work of this non-profit project has been so successful that in January 2000, when Illinois Governor George Ryan, once a firm supporter of the death penalty, placed a moratorium on executions, he credited the undergraduate programme with playing an instrumental role in arriving at his decision.

In case after case that the project took up, anti-death penalty activists watched stunned as bright-eyed undergraduate students succeeded in taking on the might of the justice system.

The images outside the courthouses have become disconcertingly familiar: exonerated death row inmates emerging from court to hug Protess off his feet, students cheering and men hardened by years in prison sobbing in gratitude.

One student keeps eye contact, another takes notes

In the Skinner case, the Medill Innocence Project took up the dossier 10 years ago.

A former oil and construction worker, Skinner had been sentenced to death for the 1993 triple murders of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons in their home in the tiny Texan town of Pampa.

Emily Probst, then a student at Northwestern and currently an investigative producer at CNN, was one of two students to take a trip down from Chicago to Texas to meet with Skinner.

“I first met Skinner as a senior in college when Pam Smith (a fellow student) and I travelled to Texas,” Probst said in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “We took copious notes. I was the one to keep eye contact and Pam took notes. We then brought our notes to our teammates.”

The team was comprised of eight students who have since graduated and currently work for different media organisations.

‘Like learning that Santa Claus is not real’

Following the first visit the other team members also travelled to Texas. After two trips, the students returned with a dossier crammed with case irregularities.

“My students made two trips to the crime scene,” Protess told FRANCE 24 in an interview just hours before the deadline for Skinner’s execution expired. “Based on our investigation, there are serious flaws in the case against Hank Skinner.”

They included the presence of another murder suspect -- a key prosecution witness who later recanted her testimony -- and DNA evidence that had been collected by investigators but was never introduced during Skinner’s trial.

The testing of the DNA evidence was the critical issue that helped Skinner obtain a US Supreme Court execution stay order.

Looking back on her remarkable undergraduate experience, Probst said, “It felt like I was in a movie. It was so surreal to think that it was up to us students to take on a case of a man on death row. You grow up thinking the system created by grown-ups works and to realise at that age that it does not always work, it was a real revelation,” she said. “Like learning that Santa Claus is not real."

The lessons she learned at the Innocence Project, Probst added, taught her to “dig deeper to seek the truth”.

Under fire: Questioning the questioners

But while Protess' class has won widespread acclaim for helping uncover the truth, it has recently faced criticism from an unexpected quarter.

One of the cases students have been investigating is the murder conviction of Anthony McKinney who is serving a life sentence for the 1978 murder of a Chicago security guard. 

When findings by Medill students got the case moved to a Chicago petition court, the state attorney's office responded by subpoenaing the project’s records, demanding access to student grades and their emails.

The state prosecutor's office maintains that the aim was “to explore any possible bias, interest or motive” since prosecutors believe the project’s students seek witnesses to prove a preconceived thesis of innocence in order to get good grades.

It’s a charge several ex-students have dismissed as preposterous. “I have to laugh at that,” said Probst. “None of us were in it for the grades. We were there for the experience and, to use a cliché, to make a difference. I think it’s a shame.”

One of the criteria for the project to take on a case is that the prisoner must be claiming innocence. Cases involving mitigating legal defence arguments such as self-defence, coercion or domestic abuse are not eligible.

The project has not always found all their subjects innocent – some cases show clear evidence of guilt.

For its part, the Medill Innocence Project has hired two lawyers to quash the subpoena on the grounds of reporter's privilege, relevance and privacy. The brief was filed in August 2009 and is currently still in the courts.

Few, though, expect this latest hurdle to deter the work of one committed journalism professor and his enterprising students who have, over a decade, helped expose some of the flaws in the US justice system, offering hope, and sometimes life, to many wrongfully convicted innocents.

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