Prosecutors: Student reporters paid witnesses

/ Source: The Associated Press

Prosecutors claimed in court Tuesday that Northwestern University journalism students paid two witness 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 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 creditability 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 said.

The brief hearing also had its share of fireworks, as Cook County Judge Diane Cannon berated Northwestern attorney Dick O’Brien for the tone and content of his last court filing.

“It is dripping, dripping with sarcasm,” Cannon said. “It is so irrelevant to the law. ... It is reprehensible.”

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 said. 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.

Prosecutors have also 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.

“The course materials including the syllabus, grading criteria and grades ... are relevant to bias, interest and motive,” the state’s attorney’s office said.

Northwestern has until Jan. 11 to respond to the state’s filing.