To Expose Injustice: An Interview with David Protess

Joanna H. Socha, Staff Writer


Journalist David Protess

“Man, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his daughter was freed thanks to the evidence done by my students. I was there, when he walked back to the arms of his wife and family and I saw the power of investigative reporting – not just to expose injustice, but also to restore a family.” – David Protess, the President of the Chicago Innocence Project talks with “Independent” about the power of investigating reporting and the importance of journalism nowadays.

Independent: Before becoming the President of the Chicago Innocence Project, you ran the Medill Innocence Project, thanks to which five innocent prisoners on death row in Illinois were freed. Could you tell us more about that project and what inspired you to do that?

David Protess: I started out doing investigative reporting about wrongful convictions with Chicago Lawyer Magazine, and after five years working for that magazine, while I was also teaching at Medill Journalism School, I thought about involving my students in that kind of work. I got them involved in a high-profile murder case of David Dowaliby in 1991. Man, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his daughter was freed thanks to the evidence done by students. I was there when he walked back to the arms of his wife and family and I saw the power of investigative reporting – not just to expose injustice, to write a wrong, but also to restore a family. After that case we made this work part of the investigative reporting class I was teaching, so I involved students in several cases, and other people were freed – for example Anthony Porter in 1999. He came out 50 hours away from execution. After the case of Anthony Porter I was able to raise money to establish the Medill Innocence Project in 1999. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love to cooperate with young people on issues that matter and it allows us, together, to free innocent people and change the law.

I: You made this part of the investigative reporting class, how did you prepared students for that kind of work?

DP: They began by reading every legal document of the case, the interviewed the people knowledgeable of the crime, lawyers, community residents, family of the prisoners, prisoners, witnesses. Sometimes witnesses were changing the story, sometimes there were alternative suspects, sometimes the police was trying to make them confess untrue. So it was very long, methodical process, sometimes it takes years.

I: You mentioned one of the innocent prisoners – Anthony Porter. How the process of discovering the true looked like? Did you know from the beginning that Anthony Porter was innocent?

DP: No, we didn’t know anything in the beginning. In fact our lawyers were convinced he was guilty. He said he was innocent and we wanted to hear the story. We interviewed him in the Cook County Jail. He told us, who, as he believed, was responsible for that crime. He actually knew, and no one ever investigated that. So we began looking into what Anthony Porter had said and we found the relatives of the actual killer, who said – “Yes, my uncle committed the crime”, “Yes, my husband committed the crime” and we found the actual killer. My students took the documents they read about the case, went to the park and reconstructed the crime. Some people stood where the witnesses stood, some people stood where the Porter was supposedly stood, other people stood where the victims stood and it turned out that the victims couldn’t see Anthony Porter or anyone else. The students then confronted the witnesses with the evidence and it came out, that it was police, what had forced witnesses to implicate Anthony Porter before. So Anthony Porter left the prison 50 hours before execution and you know – he lifted me up… (Laugh)

I: Do moments like these recharge your batteries after very difficult investigations?

DP: That is a good way of putting it. Because most of the work that we do is challenging, difficult, frustrating. People often times don’t want to talk to us, they are afraid of the truth. But when you push through all of that and you see, that the man, who was scheduled to die, goes free, it recharges the batteries and gets you set to do the next case. But to do this work you have to love the process, you have to enjoy talking to people, to persuade them to open up and tell you the truth. Because when you only wait to have this moment to breathe, well – 12 times sounds like a lot, but it’s actually 12 days in the period of several years, that will not sustain. What is sustaining is belief in investigative reporting to change public minds, in changing public policy. Those are the things that keep the batteries constantly recharged and continue to make that work.

I: Such prisoners have problems after leaving the prison…

DP: They have multiple problems – with finding jobs, getting training, problems financially, problems with their families which are often broken up, they get divorced, the family members move, the community changes, their friends are gone, they have psychological problems because all of the rage they experienced, they have no place to go, post dramatic stress syndrome, the problems are just enormous.

I: In an article on Huffington Post, you claim that innocent prisoners do not receive enough compensation from the United States. What would be appropriate compensation in your opinion?

DP: I cannot put it in amount. But what the State of Illinois is giving them now is a ridiculously low – average of ten thousand dollars a year. And 27 states, as I pointed out, don’t give anything. I think that is horribly unjust. What’s the right amount? In my opinion, at least the one for them to live, to find the job. The state owes them at least the money they can restore their lives. I think on Federal Law it would be between 25 and 50 thousand dollars a year. But I don’t think it’s going to happen.

I:Have you ever broken down, when you really wanted to be done with investigative reporting once and for all?

DP: Yes, a lot of times. Sometimes I was very frustrated about the cases that were going for so many years – it’s one of the reasons that not many people do this work. You are burned out, you drink, you smoke…But you have to realize, that it’s not a solution to a problem.

I: Did the American justice let you down after the execution of Troy Davis in 2011?

DP: My position on that is that he never really had the chance.

I: That was the headline of one of your articles.

DP: Yes, Anthony Porter was convicted of an interracial crime: white kills black. The victim was police officer, if the victim had been black, and wasn’t police officer and that happened in Illinois, he might not even be convicted. So the system is racist, classist it is regional system of justice, basically in South. Troy Davis didn’t receive the chance.

I: Many journalism students are inspired by your work. What advice would you like to give them?

DP: Follow your dreams. Don’t let the people tell you that you can’t accomplish whatever you want in the profession of journalism. You are told again and again by your parents, professors, classmates, that you can’t make journalism nowadays.I just don’t believe that. Young people are capable of accomplishing almost anything by following their dreams. I had people in my class who didn’t believe they can accomplish anything and they freed innocent people. If my 21-year old students could do that, anyone can do. Don’t listen to people, who tell you that you only grain of sand on a large beach, that you can’t make a difference in the world, you can. Journalism is professions, where you can educate the public, write wrongs and correct injustice, you can make a difference in the world.


Joanna H. Socha, is an exchange student at Northeastern Illinois University where she majors in media and communication.

“David Protess – President of the Chicago Innocence Project, a new nonprofit investigative reporting group that exposes wrongful convictions and other problems of the criminal justice system. He previously served for twelve years as director of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University, where his students developed evidence that freed twelve innocent prisoners, five of whom had been on death row in Illinois.”- Huffington Post