Innocence Project Emails Must Be Turned Over By Northwestern University, Judge Rules

A Cook County judge ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University must turn over some 500 e-mails that student journalists at the school exchanged with Medill Innocence Project founder David Protess.

The e-mails detail the students' efforts to free a man serving a life sentence after being found guilty in a 1978 slaying -- a crime they believe, after several years of investigation, he did not commit.

Judge Diane Cannon ruled that the students were "acting as investigators in a criminal proceeding," not journalists, making the information they uncovered "subject to the rules of discovery," according to an AP report.

Northwestern had argued, however, that the e-mails were protected under the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act. The university has 10 days to file an appeal, though university spokeswoman Mary Jane Twohey told the Chicago Sun-Times the school "respect[s] the judge’s decision," which arrived after at least two years of legal back-and-forth.

“We will study it carefully and consider our options thoughtfully before we decide what our next steps will be," Twohey told the Sun-Times.

The case concerns the sentencing of Anthony McKinney, a prisoner convicted of killing a security guard, Donald Lundahl, in 1978 in Harvey, Illinois. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Northwestern lawyers nearly three years ago petitioned for a retrial of McKinney featuring evidence -- recanted testimony, alibi witnesses and additional interviews -- obtained during the Innocence Project's investigation.

The university was subpoenaed to turn over class syllabi, grades and a number of other materials in 2009, but had fought releasing the internal emails to authorities.

Protess -- now president of the Chicago Innocence Project, an investigative journalism outfit founded earlier this year -- wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that he was "disappointed" by Cannon's ruling, the Sun-Times reports.