New York Times Op-Ed
December 5, 2003
"I'm an educator,"
said David Protess. "I try to teach my students to be better
reporters, and a few times we've gotten lucky."
Mr. Protess is a
professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago.
In those instances when he and his students have "gotten
lucky," they have provided a
powerful corrective to an insufficiently recognized evil in our
society: the conviction, incarceration and sometimes the sentencing
to death of people who are innocent.
It's an enormous
problem, far more widespread than most Americans realize. (Two
days ago an Oklahoma man who had served 20 years for a rape conviction
was freed after DNA tests showed he was innocent.)
Using the techniques
of investigative journalism, the professor and his students have
exposed tragic miscarriages of justice in a number of high-profile
cases in Illinois. Their efforts led to the exoneration in 1999
of Anthony Porter, who came within a whisker of being executed.
That case had a big influence on the governor at the time, George
Ryan, who eventually commuted the sentences of all prisoners on
Governor Ryan was
shaken by the "systemic failures" of the death penalty
machinery in Illinois, where several condemned inmates had to
be released from prison altogether.
was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber,
where the state would kill him," Mr. Ryan said.
and his students also turned around a case known as the Ford Heights
4, perhaps the worst miscarriage of justice in Illinois history.
Four men collectively served 65 years behind bars for a double
murder they hadn't committed. Two of the men served a combined
29 years on death row.
All have been exonerated
Obviously the professor
and his students are more than just lucky. At a time when the
United States is locking up so-called terror suspects for indefinite
periods without any charges being filed, and without even the
right to see an attorney, Mr. Protess is providing a nonstop seminar
on how to live up to the gilt-edged ideals of fairness and justice
that are the cornerstone of American greatness.
Today his contribution
will get the kind of recognition it deserves. An announcement
will be made at a press conference in Chicago that Mr. Protess
is the winner of this year's $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for
The award is given
jointly by the Puffin Foundation of New Jersey and the Nation
Institute, a foundation started in 1966 by the owners of The Nation
In an interview,
Professor Protess said he initially was surprised by the number
of cases he and his students encountered in which the prisoners
were innocent. "I'd always thought that miscarriages of justice
were an aberration and that our justice system, overwhelmingly,
worked well," he said. "But I was seeing error rates
of 10 to 15 percent. I was very struck by how pervasive the problem
I asked if he thought
any innocent people had actually been executed.
he said. "There's just no question."
I also believe, from
my own reporting, that innocent people have been put to death.
Proof, however, is difficult to obtain because people are unwilling
to do an extensive investigation after someone has been executed.
"You have to
triage the cases," said Mr. Protess. "Do you want to
investigate the case of somebody who's alive on death row who
may be innocent, or somebody who's already been put to death?"
The professor said
he will use some of his prize money to expand his investigations
to other states, and to establish a project to help ease the transition
of exonerated inmates to daily life outside prison.
Despite the enormity
of the problem of wrongful convictions (there are thousands of
innocent people rotting in prisons across the country), Professor
Protess believes events are moving in the right direction. Media
coverage is increasing. DNA evidence is becoming more widely available.
And there is increasing support for legislation designed to address
the problem of prisoners who are innocent.
As for the work that
he and his students are doing: "Some people think it's inspiring,"
the professor said. "I think it's dismaying. Seniors in college
should not be the last line of defense against an innocent person