Anthony McKinney has died where state’s attorney Anita Alvarez apparently wanted to keep him—in prison. He was 53. He was arrested in 1978, when he was 18 years old, for the murder of a security guard in Harvey, and he’d been behind bars ever since, in recent years in the psychiatric unit of the state prison in Dixon.
In 2008 he petitioned criminal court judge Diane Cannon for a hearing to consider new evidence, much of it developed by the Medill Innocence Project. What followed wasn’t really about McKinney. Alvarez made it about how the Medill students and their professor, David Protess, developed that evidence. The upshot was a scandal in which Northwestern University turned against Protess; he left Medill, the Innocence Project was overhauled, and McKinney languished in prison—for the rest of his life, it’s turned out.
Here’s a column I wrote in 2011 that offers an overview of the dismal Alvarez-Protess-Northwestern saga.
In 2008 Alvarez subpoenaed Protess and Medill for, among other things, the students’ “notes, memoranda, reports and summaries.” In 2010, two years later, the various parties to the McKinney petition gathered in Cannon’s courtroom—but not to discuss whether McKinney would get a new trial. “This is not [that] hearing,” said Cannon. “They’re responding to respondents to respondents to motions to amendments to motions to responses. We’re nowhere near a hearing, to my dismay.”
Another year passed before I wrote my column, yet McKinney was still no closer to a hearing. By then Protess had left Medill, admitting to record keeping that was “sloppy as hell” while accusing Northwestern and its Center on Wrongful Convictions of trying to placate Alvarez instead of standing up to her. “Every time you yielded, the prosecutors have demanded something else,” Protess told me. “It’s the equivalent of trying to negotiate with terrorists. I’m speaking metaphorically here. When people are completely unreasonable, you cannot reach an adequate compromise.”
And Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which provided McKinney with a lawyer, told me, “The whole thing here is that poor Anthony McKinney is innocent, for God’s sake, and in this whole hullabaloo that’s the story. Look here, what is the state’s attorney saying? They’re saying a couple of Protess’s kids offered somebody $40 to basically implicate himself in a capital murder. That is totally absurd. We have documented cases in which prosecutors have paid witnesses tens of thousands of dollars to implicate people the prosecution thought were guilty. For them to suggest this is absurd. They ought to be ashamed. Anita Alvarez ought to be ashamed of herself.”
Warden announced McKinney’s death Wednesday in an e-mailed statement that observed a hearing on McKinney’s innocence claim had still not taken place. Warden offered a statement from Karen Daniel, the CWC attorney representing McKinney. “The criminal justice system failed Anthony,” said Daniel. “First he was convicted as a teenager for a crime of which he was innocent, then delays in the post-conviction process prevented him from presenting evidence in court that might have exonerated him. Although Anthony battled mental illness after his arrest and throughout his imprisonment, he was unwavering in his assertion of innocence and always looked forward to being present in court for a hearing on his innocence claim.”
UPDATE: David Protess sent me this comment on Mckinney’s death: “Few tragedies are worse than the imprisonment of an innocent man, but one is that man’s death. With the passing of Anthony McKinney, it is as if prosecutors finally got the death penalty they sought 35 years ago. I feel great sadness for his family, his advocates, my former students and everyone who believed in justice for this gentle man. His death reminds us that compelling evidence of innocence does not ensure freedom without a commitment to justice by those in authority.”
There’s been no response yet to a request for comment from Anita Alvarez.