Last fall Anita Alvarez was elected to a tough slot. As state’s attorney for Cook County, she took the helm of one of the nation’s foremost prosecutorial teams, and also a crew whose performance over the last couple of decades has inspired a crisis of confidence. In Chicago, claims of torture and mistreatment of prisoners have been rampant, and slowly and steadily documented. Similarly, it seems that prosecutors and police, who have amassed enviable conviction statistics, got there by gaming the system. In case after case, the evidence has shown that innocent people were arrested and railroaded through the court system. The mountain of wrongly procured convictions ultimately led an Illinois governor with a reputation as a law-and-order Republican to impose a moratorium on the death penalty. “We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system,” said Governor George Ryan in a 2001 interview with CNN. “There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied.”
Alvarez would seem to have inherited a mess, but her efforts to address the crisis may be making things still worse. Instead of cleaning up the collusive and unethical practices in her office, Alvarez has decided to use her power to give the critics a black eye. Specifically, she is going after the journalism students at Northwestern University whose research has cast doubt on a series of prosecutions brought by her office. The New York Times reports:
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.
The prosecutors, it seems, wish to scrutinize the methods of the students this time. The university is fighting the subpoenas. 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.
There’s no doubt that prosecutors have the right to scrutinize evidence that’s offered against them and to ask questions about how it was collected and how reliable it is. In this case, however, the prosecutors’ objective looks like rank intimidation—a heavy-handed attempt to embarrass the students, their professor, and the university that harbors them through a series of snide insinuations couched as a discovery request. Lee Sarokin, a retired federal appeals court judge writing in the Huffington Post, correctly calls it a “flagrant attempt at intimidation.” The prosecutors, he argued, are “trying to suppress the truth and subvert justice.”
Around the country, journalists who cover criminal prosecutions are careful to cultivate good relations with prosecutors and rarely turn the sort of critical eye to them that good journalism requires. Criticism would close the door to the sort of prosecutorial leaks that are the essential grist of the crime blotter reporter. Prosecutors’ comfortable relationships with the press, however, serve neither the interests of the public nor the interests of justice. Northwestern’s Medill Innocence Project has offered us a disturbing look inside a dysfunctional criminal justice system. The answer to the problems in that system is not, as Anita Alvarez supposes, to close our eyes, but rather to take the tough steps towards reform that this awful record indicates are needed.