Prosecutors claimed in court Tuesday that Northwestern University journalism students paid two witnesses in order to make their case that an innocent man was wrongly convicted of murder.
The allegations came in filings during a Cook County criminal court hearing on a new trial for Anthony McKinney, who is serving a life sentence for the 1978 murder of a security guard.
Students have presented evidence, including interviews with witnesses, suggesting that several other men committed the crime. But prosecutors are questioning the credibility of their witnesses, including two who say the students and a Northwestern private investigator gave them money in exchange for interviews.
The Northwestern students, and their professor David Protess, denied the allegations Tuesday, calling the state's court filing part of a "smear campaign."
"It is so filled with factual errors that if my students had done this kind of reporting and investigating, I would give them an F," Protess told reporters after court.
Protess and his students have investigated nearly a dozen high-profile cases, several involving men on death row, including the Ford Heights Four, who were exonerated by DNA evidence in a double murder. In some of the cases, Protess' students found that police had bullied or coerced false confessions, and Illinois has paid out tens of millions of dollars to some of those who were wrongly convicted.
Their work also is credited with prompting then-Gov. George Ryan to empty the state's death row in 2003, re-igniting a national debate on the death penalty.
Prosecutors said in their filing that several witnesses interviewed by the students recanted their statements when speaking to prosecutors, saying that they'd told the students what they wanted to hear so that they'd be paid.
One witness, Tony Drakes, said the Northwestern investigator gave a cab driver $60 to drive him a short distance and told the driver to give Drakes $40 in change. Drakes said he used the money to buy crack cocaine.
Northwestern student Evan Benn, who is named in the state's subpoena, said it was him, not the investigator, who gave the cab driver the money, along with instructions that none of it was to be given to Drakes.
"We never paid Tony Drakes for his statement, we would never pay any source," Benn told reporters. He has said he paid $60 for the cab ride because the driver estimated it would cost about $50.
Michael Lane, who the students say was with Drakes, also told prosecutors that the students took him to dinner and gave him $50 to $100 in cash even though he didn't give them any information.
Drakes also told prosecutors that the Northwestern students came to his mother's home accompanied by a man who flashed a shotgun. In 2005, another Northwestern investigator working with Protess' Medill Innocence Project was accused by a suspect of using a gun to coerce the man into confessing to a murder that a project client was convicted of. That came years after the suspect had made his confession.
Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said ultimately the issue of whether the witnesses lied to students or to prosecutors is a matter for the court to decide.
"At the end of the day, we will take sworn statements from them and lock them in based on their statements," she said. "The burden rests with Anthony McKinney here, not us."
Prosecutors have claimed that the students were motivated to find evidence of McKinney's innocence to get good grades in their class, and they've subpoenaed the class syllabus and the students' grades.
Northwestern has until Jan. 11 to respond to the state's filing.