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Returned to Life
Op-Ed, Bob Herbert, New York Times, Dec 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 death row.
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.
"Anthony Porter was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber, where the state would kill him," Mr. Ryan said.
Professor Protess and his students also turned around a case known as the Ford Heights 4, perhaps the worst miscarriage of justice in Illinois history. 4 men collectively served 65 years behind bars for a double murder they hadn't committed. 2 of the men served a combined 29 years on death row.
All have been exonerated and released.
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 Creative Citizenship.
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 magazine.
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 %. I was very struck by how pervasive the problem was."
I asked if he thought any innocent people had actually been executed.
"Oh, absolutely," 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
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