Cook County Illinois is the gift that keeps on giving. From the aggressive G-Men of the Roaring Twenties to the Red Squads to the original Richard Daley Machine to the Burge Torture Scandals, Chicago and Cook County have a certain reputation for political corruption, police brutality and and prosecutorial misconduct.

A new chapter in heavy handedness has been penned with the current tactics of the Cook County Attorney’s Office taken against Northwestern University journalism students participating in the Medill Innocence Project. From today’s New York Times:

For more than a decade, classes of students at Northwestern University’s journalism school have been scrutinizing the work of prosecutors and the police. The investigations into old crimes, as part of the Medill Innocence Project, have helped lead to the release of 11 inmates, the project’s director says, and an Illinois governor once cited those wrongful convictions as he announced he was commuting the sentences of everyone on death row.

But as the Medill Innocence Project is raising concerns about another case, that of a man convicted in a murder 31 years ago, a hearing has been scheduled next month in Cook County Circuit Court on an unusual request: Local prosecutors have subpoenaed the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students themselves.

Lawyers in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office say that in their quest for justice in the old case, they need every pertinent piece of information about the students’ three-year investigation into Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of fatally shooting a security guard in 1978. Mr. McKinney’s conviction is being reviewed by a judge.

Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney.

The Cook County prosecutors cite no evidence to support a credible belief there is anything nefarious behind the student journalists’ work. The students work, conclusions and supporting materials are all part of their project report. The prosecutors already have access to all of said pertinent material, as well they should. But what they now want are “grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students”. Here is the actual subpoena. This is information that has nothing whatsoever to do with the students work on the project. “Fishing expedition” would be far too kind of a term.

The only visible purpose of the play by the prosecutors here is intimidation and instillation of a deep chill in the work of the Medill Innocence Project.

From the Medill Innocence Project website:

Protess and his journalism students have uncovered evidence that freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row. The Project’s work, which has been featured on “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours,” “Dateline NBC” and the front pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post, has been cited for stimulating a national debate on the death penalty.

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan credited the Project’s investigations, particularly in freeing death row inmate Anthony Porter in 1999, with helping provide the impetus for his moratorium on the death penalty in January 2000 and his subsequent decision to grant clemency to all death row inmates before leaving office in January 2003.

Most of the successful cases Medill has worked on emanate from Cook County. The Cook County prosecutors have motive to match their opportunity; the Innocence Project has repeatedly made a mockery of their shabby work on capital cases, and now they are on the cusp of doing it again in the McKinney case.

Illinois, however, has a state Reporter’s Privilege Act; i.e. a shield law:

§ 8-901. Source of information. No court may compel any person to disclose the source of any information obtained by a reporter except as provided in Part 9 of Article VIII of this Act.

The term “reporter” is defined as:

§ 8-902. Definitions. As used in this Act:

(a) “reporter” means any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis; and includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained.

(b) “news medium” means any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation; a news service whether in print or electronic format; a radio station; a television station; a television network; a community antenna television service; and any person or corporation engaged in the making of news reels or other motion picture news for public showing.

Northwestern University has a world famous journalism school, it will be hard to argue that the students were not working as journalists in the effort and Medill publishes in several formats, including a web based format specific to Chicago known as “Medill Reports: Chicago”. There is also the fact that a former governor of Illinois considered the students “journalists” and their work “investigations”, and used the work as a basis for commuting a series of death sentences. Obviously the Cook County prosecutors are going to argue the Medill project is not covered by the shield, but it is hard to see how the court will find any merit in said argument.

It takes a lot of gumption for the Cook County Attorney’s Office to be questioning the motivation of a group of students seeking honesty and truth when they themselves have spent decades hiding it. Nothing demonstrates the dark heart and soul of the Cook County Attorney’s Office as does the Burge Torture Case, which has exploded back onto the scene from actions of Pat Fitgerald’s US Attorney’s Office after decades of benign neglect and concealment by the Cook County prosecutorial authority. From The Chicago Tribune:

More than three decades after allegations surfaced that Chicago police detectives routinely tortured murder suspects, retired Cmdr. Jon Burge was arrested Tuesday at his Florida home on charges that he testified falsely about the brutality.

The perjury and obstruction of justice counts against Burge mark the first criminal charges in the long-running scandal. But a dozen or more officers once under Burge’s command who have denied under oath taking part in the alleged torture could be in legal peril as well.

The indictment of the 60-year-old Burge breathes new life into a scandal that has had a stubborn hold on the Police Department and the city and involves claims of abuse—electric shock, Russian roulette and suffocation with bags and typewriter covers. The allegations continue to figure prominently in the appeals of dozens of inmates.

Much of the scandal grew out of some of the most brutal crimes. Andrew Wilson was allegedly tortured after his arrest for the murder of two Chicago police officers in 1982. Madison Hobley made similar allegations after he was charged in a 1987 arson that killed his wife, young child and five others. Hobley was sentenced to Death Row, but was pardoned and set free by Gov. George Ryan.

The allegations also raised questions about the conduct of Mayor Richard Daley, who was Cook County state’s attorney in the 1980s when much of the alleged torture took place, and current State’s Atty. Richard Devine, whose office continued to oppose the inmates’ allegations of torture.

Yep, that Richard Daley, the current powerful legacy Mayor of Chicago. The allegations of hideous torture of suspects to coerce confessions and make cases by the Burge crew have been around since the outset, but were willingly concealed and avoided by a Cook County Attorney’s Office that did not want to know or care. The list of alleged malefactors from the Cook County Attorney’s office includes not just Daley, but also his successor Jack O’Malley and numerous other high ranking members.

This is the same office that now has the gall to cast baseless aspersions on the student journalists of the Northwestern University Medill Innocence Project.