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Letter Poses Tough Questions for Invisible Institute, Alison Flowers…

A letter sent by eight former Northwestern University students and two would-be employees to the school’s Medill School of Journalism claiming  “sexual harassment and assault” by a professor there got the media attention it was clearly aiming for.


The students and former would-be employees claimed a long list of abuses by Medill Professor Alec Klein, who was named Director of the Medill Justice Project by Northwestern in 1999.

The allegations are disturbing, a professor at a prestigious university taking advantage of his position against young female students eager for good grades and good references and two others looking for work.

Klein denied the allegations, then took a leave from the school pending outcome of a University probe of the charges contained in the petitioners’ letter.

 The signature of one person on the letter, that of Allison Flowers, raises  another set of questions worth pointing out.

The reason is that Flowers is a prominent voice in the wrongful conviction movement, a movement claiming that police misconduct has led to the false conviction of many offenders. Flowers currently works for an organization called the Invisible Institute.

Here’s how the Invisible Institute bills itself on its website:

We are a journalism production company on the South Side of Chicago.

We work to enhance the capacity of citizens to hold public institutions accountable. 

Among the tactics we employ are investigative reporting, multimedia storytelling, human rights documentation, the curation of public information, and the orchestration of difficult public conversations.

Our work coheres around a central principle: we as citizens have co-responsibility with the government for maintaining respect for human rights and, when abuses occur, for demanding redress.

One could imagine that Flowers’s complaints against Klein at Northwestern are an extension of her and the Invisible Institute’s “orchestration of difficult public conversations.” And that would a good thing.

But there are serious gaps in the fight for fair justice for women in Flowers’s letter in the larger context of her mission as a wrongful conviction advocate and member of the Invisible Institute, a mission expressed on their website as a commitment to “human rights and, when abuses occur, for demanding redress.”

Let’s take a closer look at the context of Flowers’ troubling complaints against Klein.

Flowers was attending Northwestern (2008, according to her LinkedIn profile) around the same time another troubling batch of accusations arose against a former professor, David Protess, who happened to be Klein’s predecessor . Protess was accused of encouraging his young female students to dress sexually provocatively to elicit statements in wrongful conviction investigations and engaging in other wrongdoing  which ultimately led to his leaving the University.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Prosecutors on Tuesday unveiled documents that suggested students and staff with Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project arranged a visit from a female student as a "treat" for a prisoner, in addition to making unspecified promises, before he recanted his testimony in a 1993 murder and armed robbery case.

From a federal lawsuit alleging abuse by Chicago police detectives in which students working with Protess obtained witness statements:

Defendants also claim that “a substantial body of information has surfaced in the past several years concerning illegal and coercive tactics that were routinely utilized by Protess and his designees to obtain information and recantations from witnesses in several cases, including Plaintiff’s case.” According to Defendants, “Witnesses from whom Protess procured recantations in other criminal cases have since come forward alleging that Protess and his team of investigators used coercion in various forms—dangling young female college students as sexual bait, impersonating movie producers, promising book/movie deals, making cash payments, and promising convicted murderers their freedom from prison—to procure false recantations from them.”

Sexual bait to procure false recantations?

Is Flowers going to address these allegations of abusing young woman by using them as “sexual bait” in wrongful conviction investigations? Some of these allegations seem to have surfaced at the very time she was attending the school. Or does Flowers pick and choose instances of misconduct against female students?  

Flowers, like the rest of the Invisible Institute members and the Chicago media in general, are largely silent about these allegations arising from Northwestern during the Protess era. None of them will tie the allegations from one professor, Alec Klein, to the other, David Protess, even though Klein was given his position at the school in the wake of Protess’s departure.

In fact, “reporters” like Flowers rarely even attend the hearings in which this evidence against Protess is alleged and litigated.

Apparently, for Flowers and the Invisible Institute, some discussions are more “difficult” than others.

The silence of Flowers and the rest of Chicago’s media is more compelling when one considers a request for the production of documents in the federal lawsuit against Protess and Northwestern by attorneys representing Alstory Simon:

All documents which relate or refer to any complaints of misconduct, including, but not limited to, allegations of sexual misconduct, made against Protess…

It’s important to remember that one of the victims of the 1999 double murder that Anthony Porter was originally convicted of was a young woman, Marilyn Green, engaged to be married.

Perhaps what Flowers and the Invisible Institute truly mean when they say they engage in “the orchestration of difficult public conversations,” they should add, “but not too difficult public conversations.”

This silence from Flowers fans out from the Protess cases into the entire mythology of the wrongful conviction movement upon which so much of Flowers’s and the Invisible Institute’s journalistic identity is constructed.

It asks basic questions about the human rights of many women.

Two men, Gabriel Solache and Arturo Reyes, for example, were once convicted of murdering a couple in 1998 and kidnapping their children. Their conviction was vacated several weeks ago, amidst claims that they were coerced into confessing by dirty cops.

But in releasing them, Cook County State’s Attorney Eric Sussman said he still believed the men were guilty.

Well, are they? Isn’t this exactly the kind of “difficult conversation” about human rights the Invisible Institute should be holding? Did Solache and Reyes repeatedly stab to death a woman who had just given birth to a child or not?

What about Karen Byron, gang-raped and severely burned in 1982 over the course of several hours in the attic of Stanley Wrice. Wrice claimed he was coerced into confessing and got out of prison and his 100-year sentence. He went before a judge petitioning for a certificate of innocence. The judge rejected it, saying he believed Wrice participated in the crime.

How about a “difficult conversation” on that case?

And what about the women who were burned to death in 1987 in an arson in which Madison Hobley was convicted and then exonerated? Did Hobley commit the arson or was Governor Ryan, the man who pardoned Hobley, playing the system, since Ryan was facing his own 21-count indictment at the time he let Hobley and three other convicted killers out of prison?

Talk about a “difficult conversation.”

And what about the children?

What about the fact that a woman, Nicole Harris, once convicted of strangling her own child, lost a federal lawsuit last year alleging that she also had been coerced into confessing to the murder of her own child? Attorneys representing the detectives argued in the trial that Harris was, in fact, guilty of the murder, despite her exoneration.

They won.

The truth is that there are myriad cases about the city calling for “difficult conversations” about brutal, cruel acts against innocent women and children.

All of these cases have one simple, clear and compelling message to all “journalists” in Chicago, including Flowers and her Invisible Institute:

Me too.