In her ruling, Judge Diane Cannon said that the students were acting as private investigators and not student journalists when they began looking into whether McKinney was innocent.
McKinney has been in prison for decades serving a life sentence, since he was convicted of killing a Harvey security guard in 1978.
In 2003, students at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism began working on the McKinney case with their professor David Protess who had gained some previous notoriety for obtaining the release of murder convicts that were determined to be innocent.
"I'm disappointed with the decision. The facts show that my students investigated the McKinney case for two years with no involvement by defense lawyers. Every major reporting development, including the recantations of the State's witnesses and the confession of the alternative suspect, happened BEFORE McKinney even had a lawyer," Protess said in a statement Wednesday.
In 2008, a petition was filed in Cook County Criminal Court asking Judge Cannon to conduct a new trial based on new evidence found by Protess and his team of students working for the Medill Innocence Project.
The Cook County state's attorney subpoenaed students' grades, class syllabus, and personal e-mails, stating that they could be relevant to McKinney's case. Northwestern attorneys fought the move, claiming that students and their professor were acting as reporters and therefore protecting by Illinois' reporter shield law. They argued, with support from some press organizations, that notes, e-mails and other news gathering elements, were private and should not be subject to a court's order.
After two years of legal wrangling, on Wednesday Judge Cannon ruled that Northwestern was wrong and that the records, including more than 500 e-mails between Professor Protess and his students, must be turned over to prosecutors.
"She (Judge Cannon) denied Northwestern's motion and found that the Reporter's Privilege Act does, in fact, apply to student journalists but she found that the Medill students were acting as investigators rather than journalists when they worked on the McKinney case" said Sally Daly, a spokesperson for Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez. "We are extremely pleased with this ruling as it backs our position in this case from the outset."
Judge Cannon allowed Northwestern 10 days to decide whether it will appeal the ruling.
"The real issue is that an innocent man has been locked up for 33 years. Hopefully, he now will get a hearing on the evidence of his innocence," Protess' statement said.
Protess recently left Northwestern University, following an internal investigation into allegations that his student projects employed underhanded techniques to gather information.
David Protess Full Statement:
I'm disappointed with the decision. The facts show that my students investigated the McKinney case for two years with no involvement by defense lawyers. Every major reporting development, including the recantations of the State's witnesses and the confession of the alternative suspect, happened before McKinney even had a lawyer. After that, every reporting decision was made within the Medill team. The real issue is that an innocent man has been locked up for 33 years. Hopefully, he now will get a hearing on the evidence of his innocence. The Medill Innocence Project Web site still has my by-lined story about the McKinney case in November 2008. The chronology shows that the law school did not become involved until after our investigation had been completed.