Ex-Herald Reporter Evan Benn Defends Students Accused of Bribing Sources

At Northwestern University, there's a remarkable student-led initiative called the Innocence Project. Since 1991, the J-school program has helped free 11 wrongfully convicted men with good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting on the flawed cases.

In the case of Anthony McKinney, sentenced to life over a 1978 shotgun killing, it looked like they had a 12th.

In 2004, a group of students including Evan Benn, a former Miami Herald reporter, got a videotaped confession from another man present at the shooting, absolving McKinney of guilt.

But in the course of reassessing McKinney's case, prosecutors issued sweeping subpoenas for the students' grades and off-the-record interviews.

Then, last week, they accused the students of paying Tony Drake -- the man taped absolving McKinney of guilt -- between $60 to $100 in exchange for his story.

Northwestern has refused to give prosecutors any of the students' reporting, and Innocence Project director David Protess told the Chicago Tribune the prosecutors' case is "so filled with factual errors that if my students had done this kind of reporting or investigating, I would have given them an F."

Now Benn is speaking out about the charges. He spent several years at the Herald before taking a buyout this summer and moving with his wife to St. Louis. He's now a feature writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Benn tells Riptide he can't comment on the case until prosecutors move forward. But he just published a lenghty piece in the Post-Dispatch about his involvement in the case.

It's a powerful piece of writing. Benn tells of his stomach quivering and his hands shaking as Drake, a convicted felon, confessed into Benn's video camera that he had seen the 1978 killing, and that McKinney had not been present.

As for the prosecutors' allegations that he paid Drake for the interview, Benn admits he gave a cabbie $60 to take Drake to a Greyhound bus station.

But Benn says the amount was based on the cabbie's estimate of the fare and came with specific instructions not to give any extra money to Drake. "We even got a receipt," Benn writes.

According to prosecutors, Drake now says the cabbie let him out two miles later and gave him $40, which he used to buy crack.

Benn writes he's now preparing for the possibility of prison time if prosecutors refuse to drop their demands for his notes. And he says he has no regrets about his involvement in the project, even though McKinney remains in prison five years later.

"Am I worried about McKinney's chances of being freed? Of course. I won't stop being worried until the day he walks out of prison," he writes. "Call me idealistic, but I still believe that day will come."