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Sun Times Story About Judge Cannon Falls Woefully Short...

Chicago, IL May 17, 2017—A Cook County Judge whose rulings helped prosecutors uncover evidence of misconduct in the wrongful conviction movement at Northwestern University is showing some impatience with attorneys at the school, apparently for their repeated efforts to throw her off their case.

Northwestern attorneys for Malvin Washington are trying to remove Judge Diane Cannon, who presided over a high-profile wrongful conviction bid by Northwestern as it imploded in her courtroom in 2011.

Here is an account published last week of the current battle between Cannon and Northwestern attorneys by Sun Times reporter Andy Grimm:

“Lawyers for Malvin Washington don’t want Cook County Judge Diane Gordon Cannon to preside over his retrial in a 2004 murder case.

Three sets of attorneys have tried five times to have the case assigned to another judge during the five years since he won a new trial.

"Friday, Cannon made it crystal clear she won’t let go of a case that’s been on her docket for nearly a decade — and that she’d prefer Washington’s latest batch of lawyers were off the case instead.

In a 15-minute monologue, Cannon scolded defense attorneys Jeffrey Urdangen and Alison Flaum from the bench for twice filing motions to have her booted.”

Grimm’s account of Cannon's "15-minute monologue” doesn’t give real context to the battle between Northwestern and the Judge.

First, the background.

Judge Cannon approved a subpoena in 2011 by former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for a large collection of records from Northwestern University professor David Protess and his students in their crusade to garner an exoneration for convicted killer Anthony McKinney.

Protess was a professor at the university’s Medill School of Journalism at the time and an iconic leader in the wrongful conviction movement. But Alvarez had reportedly grown suspicious of the tactics employed by Protess in the McKinney case, believing they were working for defense attorneys and not acting as journalists. 

J.C. Derrick at the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press:

“After examining the McKinney case, Alvarez accused Medill students of unethical practices such as paying for interviews and flirting with witnesses, leading her to subpoena all student materials related to the investigation—emails, notes, memos, grades and even grading criteria.”

The subpoena by Alvarez was greeted by widespread condemnation by much of the media, legal, and political community, who said the motion violated Protess and his students’ privilege as reporters.

From the New York Times:

"Professional journalism groups have said the students are clearly journalists and offered support for their wish not to reveal their notes. Beth Konrad, president of the Chicago Headline Club, said the club was seeking a discussion with Ms. Alvarez, the state’s attorney."

“We want to know, what was the decision to overreach on this?” Ms. Konrad said.

"Donald M. Craven, the interim executive director of the Illinois Press Association, questioned the prosecutors’ motives. “Taken to its logical conclusion, what they’re trying to do is dismantle the project,” Mr. Craven said."

But Cannon allowed the subpoenas, granting discovery on Alvarez’s argument that Protess and the students were working on behalf of defense attorneys fighting for McKinney—attorneys at Northwestern’s Law School—not working as journalists.

The subpoena by Alvarez and approved by Cannon revealed evidence that Protess and his students were not operating as journalists in wrongful conviction cases. The university, confronted with this evidence, initiated an internal investigation. When it was completed, they prohibited Protess from teaching his class and issued a bombshell statement:

"In sum, Protess knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions. He also misrepresented facts about these matters to students, alumni, the media and the public. He caused the University to take on what turned out to be an unsupportable case and unwittingly misrepresent the situation both to the Court and to the State."

Cannon’s decision to approve the subpoena of Northwestern records back in 2011 was made in the face of relentless condemnation of State’s Attorney Alvarez by the local media, academics, and wrongful conviction activists.

One wonders how many judges in Cook County, elected to their positions, would have withstood this pressure and remained committed to the letter of the law.

Protess’ downfall was particularly humiliating for the local media, who had been lauding Protess and his wrongful conviction claims for decades.

How did they miss the evidence?

Cannon’s courage as a judge finds little expression in the Sun Times article by Andy Grimm, who lends as much space to portraying her as a loose Cannon, so to speak, rather than a committed jurist who played a key role in uncovering a major scandal. 

This is the real context of the current issues between Cannon and Northwestern, one Grimm barely touches on. Cannon herself brought it up in confronting Northwestern attorneys about their attempts to get the case in front of another judge.

From Grimm’s article in the Sun Times:

"Cannon had repeatedly mentioned the fate of Anthony McKinney, who died while awaiting a retrial in a case handled by lawyers who, like Urdangen and Flaum, were from Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic."

“He died, never seeing the light of day, because of a professor from Northwestern,” Cannon said, an apparent reference to former NU journalism professor David Protess. “I did nothing in that case. He self-destructed. I see self-destruction.”

The subpoena by Alvarez that led to the Protess scandal at Northwestern was a black eye for the Chicago media, including the Sun Times, all of whom failed to observe the holes in Protess’ investigations that prosecutors clearly saw when they sought discovery that Judge Cannon gave the green light to in her ruling.

Those holes grew larger as more accusations unfolded against Northwestern and Protess in the years to come. Grimm and the Sun Times, along with the entire media establishment in Chicago, have refused to explore these holes in wrongful conviction investigations. The media’s silence on these cases is baffling given the extensive and fawning coverage that was given to Protess’ prior work at Northwestern.

Grimm’s misguided, sensationalistic account of Cannon’s current issues with Northwestern attorneys is a clear sign. In this latest article, Grimm and the Sun Times seem still content to bolster the movement by attacking jurists like Cannon.

But to the honest, hardworking cops and prosecutors in Chicago, Cannon is a hero.