David Protess was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 7, 1946, the son of Sidney and Beverly (Gordon) Protess. He received a B.A. degree in Political Science from Roosevelt University in 1968, an M.A. degree from the University of Chicago in the program of Community Organization in 1970, and a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Chicago in 1974. Protess joined the faculty of Loyola University of Chicago in 1974 and served as an assistant professor of political science to 1976. He spent the next five years as the research director of Chicago's Better Government Association, a private watchdog group. Protess accepted appointment as professor in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1981. Protess taught courses relating to investigative journalism, the news media and capital punishment, legal affairs reporting, and the law and ethics of journalism. He joined Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research as a faculty fellow in 1982. Protess also became a faculty affiliate for the Joint Center for Policy Research, a dual effort between Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Outside of his academic appointments Protess was a contributing writer and editor at Chicago Lawyer magazine from 1986 to 1990. He has worked as a consultant to Chicago television station WMAQ, served on the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, been an advisory board member of the Chicago Reporter, and was a founder and executive board member of Chicago's Community Media Workshop.
From his youth Protess held an interest in matters of justice; particularly compelling to him were newspaper accounts of the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Later, through his investigative research and writing, Protess helped to win the release several wrongfully convicted prisoners and advocated for the release of many more. In 1990, he and fellow investigative reporter Rob Warden helped overturn the wrongful conviction of David Dowaliby for the murder of Dowaliby's child. Protess and Warden co-wrote a book about the case, Gone in the Night: The Dowaliby Family's Encounter with Murder and the Law in 1993. In 1996, it was adapted into a CBS television miniseries.
Protess gained national attention again in 1996, when he and undergraduate students in his investigative journalism class helped free the “Ford Heights Four,” four men (two of whom were on death row) wrongfully convicted in 1978 of murdering a young couple. Protess and Warden again wrote an account of the case, A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Both A Promise of Justice and Gone in the Night received Best Book Awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting.
Protess's work merited national attention again in 1999, when he and another team of undergraduate students helped to gain the release of prisoner Anthony Porter. Porter, a sixteen-year resident of death row with an IQ well below the normal level, was two days away from his scheduled lethal injection when he earned a stay of execution, giving Protess and his students the chance to take his case. Their work helped lead to Alstory Simon's confession to the double murder, thereby exonerating Porter. The case proved highly influential in then-Illinois governor George Ryan's decision to commute the sentences of the state's 150-plus death row prisoners to life without parole. Ryan announced this decision on January 11, 2003, in a speech at the Northwestern University School of Law. The previous day, Ryan had freed death row prisoner Aaron Patterson from prison by giving him a pardon; Protess and a group of undergraduates had provided assistance in Patterson's case as well.
Coverage of Protess's efforts to free wrongfully convicted prisoners has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, USA Today, the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, and television programs such as “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes,” and “Dateline NBC.” His awards include the Charles Deering McCormick Award for Teaching Excellence, the Amoco Foundation Faculty Award in 1993, the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in 1989, and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies' National Teaching Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Journalism Ethics. Other awards include the National Education Association's H. Councill Trenhold Memorial Award in 2002, the Nation Institute's Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2003, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Champion of Justice Award in 1996, Court TV's “Scales of Justice” award, the American Civil Liberties Union's James McGuire Award, the Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America's Herb Block Award, the Darrow Commemorative Committee's Clarence Darrow Award, Amnesty International's Media Spotlight Award, the World Detectives Association's Truth in Action Award, and the Southern Center for Human Rights' Service to Prisoners Award. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed a day in Protess's honor, and he was an ABC News “Person of the Week.” The United States Supreme Court cited his reporting of the Anthony Porter case in its Atkins v. Virginia decision that declared the execution of the mentally retarded to be unconstitutional.
In 1999, Protess co-founded the Center for Wrongful Convictions with (now former) Northwestern law professor Lawrence Marshall. The Center is a component of the School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic. That same year, he founded the Medill Innocence Project, an educational program in which journalism students investigate miscarriages of justice. The Medill Innocence Project is part of the National Innocence Network, a consortium of more than 20 journalism and law schools that investigate wrongful convictions.
Found in 1 Collection or Record:
David Protess (1946- ) Papers
This series fills 29 boxes and almost exclusively contains incoming correspondence either sent directly or forwarded to Protess and relating to the cases of prisoners claiming innocence or unjust conviction. The letters span the years 1996 to 2001.