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By The Skanner News
Published: 18 March 2011

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) -- A Northwestern University journalism professor whose students are credited with helping to free more than 10 innocent men from prison - including death row - has been pulled from the class that made him famous amid allegations of ethics violations.

David Protess told the Chicago Tribune he was notified by email this week that he wouldn't be teaching the investigative journalism course for the upcoming quarter.

He will continue as director of the Medill Innocence Project, but he said he doesn't know whether the project will continue to be affiliated with the class. Investigative journalism students usually conduct the project's investigations.

Protess and his investigative reporting students have helped free more than 10 innocent men from prison, including death row, since 1996. 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 and leading to the end of capital punishment in Illinois.

But the Innocence Project's recent investigation of Anthony McKinney, who is serving a life sentence for the 1978 murder of a security guard, has brought scrutiny of the students and their reporting methods. The Cook County State's Attorney's office has subpoenaed the students' notes and grades, suggesting that students may have received better grades from Protess for uncovering evidence of the man's innocence.

Protess and his students have vigorously denied those allegations, and a lawyer hired by the university defended Protess in criminal court until he abruptly resigned last fall, telling Protess in an email obtained by the Chicago Tribune that, "We believe that you have displayed a lack of candor with us and have not cooperated with us."

The split with attorney Richard O'Brien and the university stems from accusations that Protess withheld student memos and notes from prosecutors while giving them to McKinney's attorneys.

"The university spent close to a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars protecting those things that we believed to be privileged," Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's spokesman, told the Tribune in reference to the fight over the subpoena for student records. "That fight was based on the representations from Protess that those documents had not been provided to anyone else. And it was clear that what had not been turned over (to prosecutors) was in his possession."

Protess told the Tribune that he never misled the university or its lawyer, and he blamed the situation on confusion between himself and McKinney's legal team. In the meantime, the university has hired former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas to investigate allegations of ethics violations by Protess and the Innocence Project.

The eight students registered for the spring investigative journalism course have petitioned the university to reconsider its decision to remove Protess and have threatened to drop the class.

"Please take stock of the reasoning behind your decision in this case. In our minds, it was not made in consideration of the best interests of the students, past, present or future," the petition reads, according to the (Evanston) Daily Northwestern. "Reconsider your decision and let us have the professor we all signed up for and the professor we deserve."

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