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Education Wed Mar 23 2011

What I Learned from David Protess


David Protess receiving the Puffin/Nation prize for Creative Citizenship in 2003

In the winter of 2005, I enrolled in David Protess' Investigative Journalism class at Northwestern University. By then, I had completed all of the core requirements for my journalism degree, and this course would be my last journalism elective before graduation. I was unsure about my future career path, but I knew that I did not want to leave Northwestern without taking this course. Older classmates I had spoken to told me that Protess was likely to change your life and your perspective on the U.S legal/justice system.

When I received word that I was accepted into the class, I was excited and nervous at the same time. We would be investigating possible wrongful convictions and trying our best to free innocent people in jail. That is a lot of pressure on a group of 22-year-olds, but as we would learn, Protess was never one to give up easily.

On the first day of class, I walked quickly to Fisk Hall, where many of the journalism classes were held. I arrived to class a little early, sat down among other eager students and took out my pen and notebook. A few minutes later, Protess walked in to begin class.

I can't remember his exact words that day, but I remember he gave a brief introduction about himself. In the 1970s, he was inspired by the unraveling of the Watergate scandal. In the era of muckraking journalism, famed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were some of his heroes. He began looking into possible wrongful convictions and started to see corruption, police brutality and blatant injustice all around him. An innocent person could spend the rest of his or her life in prison - or worse, be killed on Death Row prior to Illinois' moratorium and recent abolition of the Death Penalty - simply because he or she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, wrongful convictions were more common in lower-income communities, although the middle-class was not immune to the problem either as we learned when we read Protess' book Gone in the Night.

"I want to take you out of your comfort zone," I remember Protess saying. We spent the next few months knocking on doors, chasing long-lost police documents and interviewing key witnesses years after a case had been closed.

I had never met someone so single-mindedly focused on a mission. Protess often joked that his phone number was the most popular number written along every prison wall.

I was only a part of his class for one quarter, but it was definitely one of the most challenging and memorable times in my life. It certainly was not always easy dealing with the magnitude of wrongful convictions, but I am a better person for the experience, and I hope that I always remember to help those in need, just as Protess has done for his entire career. The motto of the defunct magazine Brill's Content always comes to mind when I think of Protess' class: Skepticism is a Virtue.

Last week, Northwestern announced that Protess will no longer teach investigative journalism, though he will remain executive director of the Medill Innocence Project. I don't want to comment on the university administration's reasoning for removing Protess from the class, as that is a separate issue, but I will say that I hope Protess will be able to teach many, many more students. Beyond teaching me about wrongful convictions and the skills of investigative journalism, Protess taught me how to fight for a cause even when no one else is following you. It would be a shame if other students don't have the chance to learn the same thing.

Alumni have established a petition protesting his removal from the class. You can view and sign the petition here.

You can also find the movie version of Gone in the Night on YouTube. Protess is played by Michael Brandon. At the end of the quarter, and after reading Protess' book, we watched the movie version for fun. See the clip below to see the Hollywood-version of Protess in action.

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Diane Seltzer / March 24, 2011 8:31 AM

and now you learned that the truth is there to be found, IF IT IS WANTED! Now, you also learned, it is NOT! Read about another wronfdul conviction!Paul Vincent Cortez had a bright future. He grew up in the Bronx with his loving mother, brother and sister. Throughout his childhood, Paul focused intensely on his academics, athletic and theatre interests in hopes of one day being able to support his family and move them out of the Bronx. He earned academic scholarships to the prestigious Buckley School, Poly Prep Country Day School, and Boston University. In 2003, he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Paul’s talents extend well beyond academics – he was an aspiring Broadway actor and lead singer of a popular, local New York City band. While chasing his dreams as a thespian and musician, Paul supported himself by working as a trainer at Equinox in Manhattan.
Paul & His Mom

On November 27, 2005, Paul endured the most unthinkable devastation - his girlfriend, Catherine Woods, was found murdered on the floor of her Upper East Side apartment. Police investigators were baffled by this gruesome murder and had no immediate explanation. The first three weeks of the investigation did not yield any relevant witnesses, DNA, surveillance videos or any other illuminating evidence. The day after the murder, Paul Cortez voluntarily spoke to the police in hopes of providing them with information that might help solve the case. Paul was immediately told that because of his relationship with Catherine that he was a prime suspect. After six hours of intense interrogation, Paul desperately wanted the police to find Catherine’s murderer – he wanted to help in any way he could. Paul volunteered his foot prints, allowed the police to photograph his hands and body (which revealed no cuts or wounds), provided his cell phone for inspection, volunteered his DNA, and allowed the police to search his apartment without any sort of warrant. Without any reason or evidence to believe that Paul had committed this crime, the police released Paul and escorted him to his apartment.

With the media hungry to announce a killer on the loose in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world, the police were under incredible scrutiny to produce immediate answers and an arrest. In addition, this made-for-Hollywood scenario featured a fast-rising Manhattan District Attorney looking to capitalize on the high-profile nature of the Catherine Woods murder frenzy. Apparently, informing the media that the investigation lacked any significant breakthroughs was not a viable option.

Instead, much of the personal information that Paul volunteered to the police during his questioning was somehow leaked to the tabloid media a few days after the murder by “anonymous police sources.” With these police leaks, so began the demonizing of Paul Cortez by the New York Post, Daily News, and other sensationalized media. These tabloids published erroneous stories such as “…killer identified on surveillance video” and “Cortez confession letter found.” Although the two statements above were 100% fabricated and not based on anything even remotely close to accurate, the media began to construct the image of Paul Cortez as a twisted madman. Clearly, the District Attorney utilized the media’s court of opinion to help the police construct the story of a killer, rather than search for the true killer. As these tabloid stories pervaded New York City , Paul’s life was immediately turned upside down. He was villainized and unable to go out in public. Reporters began stalking him and his family. His face was plastered across newspapers and television. He became a prisoner in his own apartment and New York City . The media had tried and hung Paul Cortez for this crime before an arrest had even taken place.

Three weeks into the police investigation and in the peak of this media frenzy, the police arrested Paul Cortez on grounds that his fingerprint was found at the scene of the crime. The grounds for this arrest were shocking, especially considering that throughout Paul and Catherine’s thirteen month relationship, Paul left fingerprints throughout her entire apartment.

In addition to mourning the tragic loss of Catherine, Paul was faced with having to prove he was not guilty of causing harm to a person he cared so deeply for. Like so many of us, Paul believed in our legal system and naively thought the truth would be sufficient to ensure his exoneration. Paul and his family underestimated the importance of adequate legal representation needed to prove his innocence. With their extreme financial limitations, the Cortez Family could only afford the cheapest of attorneys. Paul’s assumption was that no attorney could botch the truth. As it turns out, Paul made the mistake of his life by bargain-hunting for legal representation and underestimating the District Attorney’s hunger for any conviction. More specifically, Paul’s attorneys failed to refute the most fundamental facts and the flawed circumstantial case presented by the prosecution.

Below are the pieces of circumstantial evidence that the District Attorney weaved into a story that he was able to successfully sell to the jury. Beneath each piece of evidence is clarification and the illuminating facts. Each individual piece of circumstantial evidence is flawed on its own, and even more implausible when combined into the story crafted by the District Attorney.

* By applying chemicals, the police investigators were able to identify one fingerprint from a wall in Catherine’s bedroom that had blood splattered on it. According to the trial transcripts, the police fingerprint expert stated that this fingerprint “was not visible to the naked eye and only visible when interacted with chemical solutions.” Although the fingerprint on the wall was Paul’s, Paul’s attorneys inexplicably did not call any expert witnesses – not even a fingerprint expert. Paul’s attorneys also failed to ask the police fingerprint expert during cross-examination as to whether such a latent fingerprint could have been left at the time of the murder. These omissions are absolutely unbelievable considering the case hinged on the fingerprint. If Paul’s attorneys would have done something so basic as to call a fingerprint expert to the stand, the expert would have told the jury that because the fingerprint was not visible to the naked eyed without chemical application, the fingerprint existed beneath the blood. Also, if the police fingerprint expert had been competently cross-examined, this same result would have been reached and the jury would have learned that the latent Paul Cortez fingerprint was left on the wall of Catherine’s apartment at some time prior to the murder. More specifically, Paul had been in Catherine’s apartment countless times and surely had fingerprints all over her apartment. The fingerprint that essentially led to Paul’s conviction was a pre-existing fingerprint that had blood splattered on top of it at the time of the murder. In his closing argument and final opportunity to sway the jury’s opinion, the District Attorney went so far as to blatantly manipulate the expert’s testimony by imploring the jury that the fingerprint on Catherine’s wall could only have been left by the killer at the time of the murder. Again, the District Attorney viewed this case about winning and losing – rather than about finding the truth.
* Paul made several phone calls to Catherine on the day of the murder. Some of these phone calls were made from only a few blocks away from her apartment. The prosecution explained to the jury that Paul was a jealous, scorned lover who tried over and over again to speak to Catherine. The prosecution further theorized that Paul was a possessive man unable to handle the repeated rejection and reached a breaking point whereby his rage led him to murder.

Although the prosecution formulated a very riveting story for the jury to absorb, reality did not match this story. Paul was in Catherine’s neighborhood because the Equinox fitness center where he worked was only a few blocks away from Catherine’s apartment. He actually spent most of his waking hours on the Upper East Side . Although Paul and Catherine had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship, they spoke very frequently, but their relationship was not exclusive. In fact, Paul was actually on a date with another woman on the Upper East Side only hours before Catherine’s murder. Also, Paul and Catherine had a history of often calling each other up to 30 times in a single day. Months of Paul and Catherine’s phone records corroborate that 18 phone calls on the day of the murder was not so unusual for them.

Paul had always been extremely nurturing and protective of Catherine. Several months prior to her death, Paul learned that Catherine was endangering herself by working as an exotic dancer. At that time, Paul pleaded with Catherine to find a safer way to support herself. Soon thereafter, an incident occurred at the Gentlemen’s Club where Catherine was compromised and hurt. The night of the incident, Catherine phoned Paul asking for him to come get her and take her home. Paul subsequently phoned Catherine’s father requesting his intervention and help. Unfortunately, Catherine’s choice of employment did not lend itself to safe surroundings. When she was personally endangered, Paul was the one that she reached her hand out to for help. The picture painted by the prosecutor of Paul as a raging madman stalking Catherine outside her apartment is simply so far from the reality of Paul and Catherine’s worlds.

* Since Paul was in high school, he wrote poems and music lyrics in his personal journals. At the time of Paul’s arrest, the police seized twenty-five journals each containing thousands of love poems, songs, sketches of comic book characters, cartoons and his deepest emotional feelings. These journals date back to Paul’s days in high school. Although the police had thousands of pages of Paul’s deepest thoughts from when he was a teenager up until after Catherine’s death, there was not one single reference to Paul wishing harm or wanting to do harm to Catherine Woods, or any other person. At trial, the prosecution isolated ONE song from the thousands of pages of journal entries. The lyrics to the song, “The Killing Machine” were presented to the jury. The prosecution isolated these lyrics and told the jury that Paul is filled with anger and violent thoughts towards women.

In actuality, this song was written in collaboration with one of his band members in August of 2005. More specifically, Paul began having artistic differences with the guitarist of his band Monolith. The guitarist wanted the songs to get darker and Paul’s yoga inspired persona seemed to contrast the band’s hard rock sound. As a result, Paul and the guitarist wrote the song entitled, “The Killing Machine.” The song was a commentary on society’s morbid fascination with sex and violence. However, during the trial, the District Attorney argued that the song showed that Paul had a dark side and was capable of violence. Once again, the District Attorney ignored the thousands of soft poems about love and goodness and inflamed the jury by manipulating the journal entries. Not surprisingly, these song lyrics and other journal entries were leaked to the media several months before trial. Not surprisingly, the tabloid media exaggerated and mis-portrayed these journal entries to the extreme in helping fabricate the construction of Paul Cortez as a madman.

* A size 10 ½ bloody footprint was found at the scene of the crime. It was determined that this footprint was left by a certain style of Sketcher brand boots. At the trial, Spencer, an acquaintance of Paul’s, testified that he was out socially with Paul the night of the murder and that Paul was wearing Sketcher boots. This testimony is incredibly suspect as six months earlier when Spencer was interviewed by CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery, Spencer told the interviewer that he had no recollection of what Paul was wearing that evening, let alone the brand and style of his shoes. Somehow, Paul’s footwear came in greater focus for Spencer fourteen months after the evening in question. Nonetheless, the District Attorney used this very suspect testimony in an attempt to further link Paul Cortez to the crime.

The high-powered District Attorney convinced the jury that Paul was a scorned lover who had a history of violent thoughts and obsessive personality. While in Catherine’s neighborhood, Paul eventually reached his breaking point and committed the murder and left a bloody fingerprint and footprint behind. Although an imaginative theory, the facts simply do not support this story.

Unfortunately, Paul and his family lived pay check to pay check in the Bronx . As a result, they were not able to afford a legal team sufficient for a murder trial. Instead, the Cortez’s family shoestring budget basically got them what they paid for – an incompetent pair of attorneys from up the street in the Bronx who did not show up for several days for the trial and reprimanded repeatedly by the judge. These two lawyers did not set forth much of a defense for Paul. The overwhelming majority of their defense was made up of character witnesses that testified to Paul’s peaceful and gentle ways – his regard for the spiritual side of life and the Buddhist ways he sought to bring tranquility to his existence. Paul’s attorneys did not present any expert witnesses – this is especially shocking considering the importance of the fingerprint and boot print. Despite the media circus that surrounded the case, Paul’s attorneys did not request a sequestered jury. Each night the jurors would go home and subject themselves to the sensationalized media stories, including the most extreme fabrications found each day in the New York Post about Paul and the “evidence.”

Paul Vincent Cortez was convicted of this crime without the presence of any real, concrete evidence against him. Despite such a gruesome murder, not one drop of Paul’s blood was found in the apartment and not one scratch was present on Paul’s body when it was examined. No person (or the surveillance video positioned outside Catherine’s apartment building) saw Paul enter or exit Catherine’s apartment on the night of the murder. Most troubling of all, when Catherine’s body was found, there were several LIGHT-COLORED hairs intertwined in Catherine’s fingers. These hairs did not match those of Paul – he has dark-colored hair. Not only was there no evidence of Paul at the scene of the crime, but there was DNA and hair samples of an unidentified person at the scene of the crime and on Catherine’s mutilated body. Inexplicably, the District Attorney did not do further tests on these hair samples in hopes of finding the killer. Once again, the District Attorney demonstrated that obtaining a rapid conviction took precedence over identifying the real killer. With Paul’s last hopes of freedom now resting on his appeal, Paul has been unable to afford legal representation for appeal. We have identified a team of truly top-notch appellate attorneys who believe that Paul has suffered the greatest of injustices. They have generously agreed to represent Paul in his appeal at a dramatically reduced cost to help give Paul a shot at the justice he deserves.

Unfortunately, innocence is not a guarantee of freedom. Paul found out the hard way that sometimes it takes more than the truth to win. Strong legal representation is often required to defend against such unfair accusations. Paul is paying the price of his freedom because he and his family did not have the resources to afford adequate counsel at trial. Paul now needs your help to make an appeal, retain a competent lawyer and prove his innocence. Even with his attorneys’ generous fee reduction, Paul's family is unable to further finance the mounting legal expenses. Again, a person’s freedom should not be at risk because one cannot afford competent legal representation and this is why we ask for your help.

Many wonderful friends and family have contributed to Paul’s Defense Fund and these contributions have added up to make a major difference. We are, however, far from what is needed and have to extend a plea for help. We need anyone who could find it in their heart to right this horrific injustice and help give an innocent young man back his life.

Paul Cortez’s life is rotting away in an 8 ft X 6 ft cage. He is dying a slow death for a crime he did not commit. We have lost so much faith in our justice system. If we all come together and lend a hand, we can help give this immensely talented, innocent, good-hearted, special human-being his life back.FREEPAULCORTEZ.COM

Thank you,

Diane Seltzer

Fulgour / August 23, 2011 10:16 AM

Appeal DENIED = Paul Cortez GUILTY.

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