In Illinois last week, Anthony Porter – who has been on death row for 16 years – was released from prison after Northwestern University journalism students discovered another man had committed the crimes. The students were investigating the evidence surrounding a 1982 double homicide trial as part of a Northwestern class. In an era of abysmal public opinion of the media, amid ethics scandals and Monica Madness, it is refreshing to see aspiring journalists doing what their profession is all about – digging deep to find the truth.
Students in Professor David Protess’s investigative reporting class were assigned the Porter case as a project. They soon discovered several discrepancies in court records of witnesses’ testimony – a reenactment proved that a key witness could not have identified Porter at the scene of the crime. They then tracked down another man who admitted on videotape to the slayings. The key witness in the trial soon recanted, saying police had coerced him to testify. A judge then granted an appeal to free Porter based on “news reports of significant evidentiary developments” that cast doubt on Porter’s guilt.
It is the second time Protess and his students have gotten innocent people released from jail. In 1996, the class played a pivotal role in the release of four men wrongly convicted of gang rape and double murder.
Protess and his class have exposed definite and disturbing errors in the judicial process, which need to be rooted out. It is frightening to think that in a capital-offense case, the court and prosecutors never fully investigated contradictory evidence while a man’s life hung in the balance. These students have shown that in a profession dominated recently by scandal and unprofessionalism, some journalists are still true to the tenets of the trade.