For the last six months, Evan Benn
has been editing and writing about topics that go down easy -- like craft beer
-- for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
But the new St. Louisan used to cover much meatier subjects, especially during his time spent in Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project
. And because of that Benn now finds himself right at the center of a pretty big news story about reporters' privileges.
The Medill Innocence Project, an investigative journalism program that dispatches students to examine potentially wrongful convictions, has a platinum reputation in the media business. Its work is the main reason that former Illinois governor George Ryan in 2000 ordered a moratorium on the state's death penalty.
But according to the Cook County State's Attorney's office
, past Medill students paid people for interviews. Enter Benn.
Evan Benn, center, flanks his former Northwestern professor, David Protess, after a court hearing in Chicago on Tuesday.
In the course of gathering reporting that could potentially exonerate a Chicago man named Anthony McKinney
, Benn and a fellow Northwestern student conducted a key, videotaped interview with a man who said McKinney was innocent
of killing a security guard in 1978.
That interview took place just across the river, in Swansea, Illinois, back in 2004.
"I have to say, when we conducted this interview, five years ago, where Tony Drakes confessed his involvement and said Anthony McKinney had nothing to do with it, I thought it would be days or weeks before McKinney walked out of a prison a free man," Benn tells Daily RFT
. "Five years later and it's come to this."
Based on Benn's interview and other information obtained by Northwestern students during a three-year investigation, McKinney's case has earned another day in court. But prosecutors are now accusing the students of bribing interview subjects.
Specifically, the prosecutors are reportedly
contending that a private eye who occasionally accompanied the students on interviews paid a St. Louis-area cab driver $60 and told him to give Drakes, the key witness interviewed by Benn, $40 after giving him a ride.
The prosecutors contend that the students would've had incentive to compensate Drakes for any evidence that would help exonerate McKinney -- and thus earn them better grades
in the journalism class.
(An interesting aside: Drakes told prosecutors he used the forty bucks to buy crack
... presumably right here in St. Louis.)
Benn says *he* was the person who paid for the cab. And he denies that it was in exchange for information
"We agreed to provide Tony Drakes with a cab ride from this [Swansea] park where we interviewed him to a bus station in St. Louis, which is where he said he needed to go. When the interview was over, we called a cabbie and asked him the fare and he told us fifty dollars. So I gave him sixty dollars: fifty for the fare, plus tip, and said, 'This is for the fare from here to the bus station, you're not to let him off early, don't let him pocket the cash, no funny business.' That's all we had control over. We got a receipt for that and it was the last I heard of it until Tuesday."
Benn was in Chicago on Tuesday for a hearing in which prosecutors asked a judge to force a Medill professor to turn over the students' records, grades, interview notes and e-mails
. The judge is not expected to make a decision until the new year.
Benn won't tell Daily RFT
what grade he received for the class. It couldn't have been too bad. After graduation from Northwestern in 2004, he toiled for the Miami Herald
before joining the P-D
's Go! staff this past spring. Most recently Benn was made a general-assignment reporter in the features department.