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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A judge in Chicago is ordering Northwestern University to turn over more than 500 emails to prosecutors. They were written by a high-profile professor and his investigative journalism students.

The students were part of the school's Medill Innocence Project. That project has helped exonerate a dozen men convicted of murder.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper has the story.

DAVID SCHAPER: Anthony McKinney has been behind bars since 1978, when he was just 18 years old. He was convicted of the shotgun killing of a security guard. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.

David Protess, the acclaimed professor leading the Medill Innocence Project, had his investigative journalism students begin looking into McKinney's case in 2003.

Evan Benn, now a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, took Protess's class in 2004.

EVAN BENN: Our main thing was we identified some alternative suspects and we came down, actually, down here where I am now to East St. Louis and spoke to one of them, confronted one and he confessed on videotape to us that he was present at the time of this crime and Anthony McKinney wasn't even there.

SCHAPER: At the time, undergrad Benn thought he had a big journalistic scoop.

BENN: And I really thought, at that point, that once we got that tape in the hands of prosecutors, that it would be a number of days until Anthony McKinney walked out of prison a free man.

SCHAPER: But seven years later, that hasn't happened. Protess's students continued working on the case for a few more years and he turned over much of their evidence to the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern's Law School.

Attorneys there petitioned the Cook County courts for a new trial for McKinney in 2008. But as prosecutors reinvestigated the case, they raised questions about the students' methods. Cook County state's attorney, Anita Alvarez.

ANITA ALVAREZ: When we went out and interviewed these people, we were finding that they were telling us, you know - no, that's not what I said to them. Or, this is what they said to me. This is how that statement came about.

SCHAPER: So Alvarez's office filed a subpoena in 2009 demanding all of the students' and Professor Protess's investigative materials, including notes, tapes, emails and grades.

Protess and Northwestern University objected. They argue that journalism students are protected by Illinois Reporters' Privilege Act, which shields journalists from revealing their notes and sources. Alvarez disagrees.

ALVAREZ: These students, albeit students and journalism students, were really acting in the role of a criminal investigator.

SCHAPER: Judge Diane Cannon ruled that because Protess gave the students' work to defense attorneys before it was published, they're not journalists but investigators for the defense, whose work is subject to discovery.

Northwestern journalism grad Evan Benn disagrees with that ruling.

BENN: We were only acting under the direction of our professor, David Protess.

SCHAPER: But it turns out Protess shared much more information with the Center for Wrongful Convictions than he first indicated, leading to a bitter split between the journalism professor and Northwestern. He now heads up his own Innocence Project in Chicago.

Protess declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement saying every major reporting development, including the recantations of the states' witnesses and the confession of the alternative suspect, happened before McKinney even had a lawyer.

A statement from Northwestern said the school respects the judge's decision and is considering its options. Many news organizations and schools of journalism hope Northwestern will appeal.

Beth Konrad teaches journalism at Loyola University of Chicago. She fears the ruling will have a chilling effect on investigative journalism students.

BETH KONRAD: People will walk away. Students, journalism programs - they'll walk away saying, wow, watch out what you do here because if you're part of this, you can be subpoenaed for your notes, for your grades, for your emails, for all of your materials, your tapes, anything that you have, because that's what happened at Medill.

SCHAPER: Northwestern has until September 21st to appeal. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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