Professor's dogged pursuit of truth brings justice at last

Local hero David Protess
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The Independent Online
It's not easy being an investigative journalist caught in the limelight of success. No matter how satisfactory the plaudits from public and peers for a job well done, the resulting high profile makes doing the job tricky.

"You can't sneak up on anybody," lamented David Protess, a journalism professor at Chicago's Northwestern University and advocacy journalist who specialises in miscarriage of justice cases.

Mr Protess became the toast of Chicago this summer, appearing on television shows and in People magazine and the New York Times, following the release of four men known as the Ford Heights Four from Illinois' Death Row after a spending a combined 65 years in prison. The men, all black, were wrongfully convicted of murdering a young white couple from Chicago's Ford Heights neighbourhood in 1978.

To bring their innocence to light, Mr Protess, a team of students in his investigative journalism class, and a private investigator combed police files, court records and interviewed witnesses and the defendants. Their investigation turned up a sordid tale of sloppy police work, overzealous prosecutors, racism and poverty.

This autumn Mr Protess is teaching another undergraduate investigative journalism class, whose projects include research into the Ford Heights Four case for a book Mr Protess will write in the coming year. They will also help the professor investigate a new case of apparent wrongful conviction.

Mr Protess was reluctant to discuss the case, citing the need for a low profile to accomplish his task. However, he did reveal that the case is in the Midwest and involves several people incarcerated for a crime they probably did not commit.

Mr Protess is also the author of a book about a previous case of wrongful conviction he helped overturn. Gone in the Night, the story of a young couple convicted of the murder of their young daughter and later acquitted, was made into a mini-series on CBS television. Mr Protess wrote the book with Chicago reporter/editor Rob Warden, with whom he will work again on the Ford Heights book. In his new book Mr Protess says he will be "exploring the lessons the case holds about media, racism, the death penalty and the workings of the criminal justice system". A movie deal for the account has been signed. Mr Protess makes no profit from these projects. He says simply, "I am paid a salary at Northwestern University to teach investigative journalism. The money goes to charitable causes."

This attitude and some other differences of opinion led to a falling out between the professor and his students. Mr Protess, who has a reputation for getting very involved in his cases, felt he and his students should not be profiting from their work.

The three primary investigative students, after consulting lawyers, felt they had earned the right to take cuts of the movie deal.

They also disagreed with Mr Protess's requests that they should hand the information they had gained over to the authorities. They felt they had conducted the investigation as journalists, not as arms of the prosecutor's office.

Despite the emotional toll these tragic cases take, Mr Protess does not foresee hanging up his tape recorder and word processor after this case. "This is my life's work," he said. "Sure, there are countless miscarriages of justice. I just hope I can be part of correcting them."