Prosecutors: Students paid two witnesses

November 10, 2009 (CHICAGO) Prosecutors allege the students investigating the case of Anthony McKinney, who was sentenced to life in prison in a 1978 murder, paid $60 to one witness and $100 to another possible suspect.

Prosecutors outlined the allegations against the students during a court hearing on Tuesday. They have subpoenaed emails, grades, and other paperwork from the class.

The students said they have proof McKinney was wrongfully convicted. Prosecutors allege the class paid off witnesses in an effort to get that proof- and to get a good grade.

In the last 10 years, Innocence Project has helped free several wrongfully convicted inmates by uncovering new information and has worked on the McKinney case for a few years. He is now up for a new trial.

Northwestern University Professor David Protess calls the subpoena "a fishing expedition." He plans to fight it in court.

"Anthony McKinney will be approaching 50 years old," said Protess. "He was locked up when he was 18. He will have celebrated 32 birthdays behind bars. How long is enough before the state is willing to recognize that it has made mistake and stop attacking my journalists and start paying attention to the facts of this case?"

Prosecutors say the information is needed to determine whether the students were ethical in obtaining the information in McKinney's case. They were prepared for oral arguments but will have to wait until January to review further arguments for the subpoena put forth by the state's attorney's office.

The brief hearing also had its share of fireworks, as Cook County Judge Diane Cannon berated Northwestern attorney Dick O'Brien for the tone and content of his last court filing.

"It is dripping, dripping with sarcasm," Cannon said. "It is so irrelevant to the law. ... It is reprehensible."

Prosecutors said in their filing that several witnesses interviewed by the students recanted their statements when speaking to prosecutors, saying that they'd told the students what they wanted to hear so that they'd be paid.

One witness, Tony Drakes, said the Northwestern investigator gave a cab driver $60 to drive him a short distance and told the driver to give Drakes $40 in change. Drakes said he used the money to buy crack cocaine.

Northwestern student Evan Benn, who is named in the state's subpoena, said it was him, not the investigator, who gave the cab driver the money, along with instructions that none of it was to be given to Drakes.

"We never paid Tony Drakes for his statement, we would never pay any source," Benn said. He has said he paid $60 for the cab ride because the driver estimated it would cost about $50.

Michael Lane, who the students say was with Drakes, also told prosecutors that the students took him to dinner and gave him $50 to $100 in cash even though he didn't give them any information.

Prosecutors have also claimed that the students were motivated to find evidence of McKinney's innocence to get good grades in their class, and they've subpoenaed the class syllabus and the students' grades.

"The course materials including the syllabus, grading criteria and grades ... are relevant to bias, interest and motive," the state's attorney's office said.

If a judge decides he has to turn over his grades and what is off the record, Protess said he will refuse, at the risk of being found in contempt of court.

Northwestern has until Jan. 11 to respond to the state's filing.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. )

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