Innocence Institute discontinued
Journalism class cut from program
Published: Monday, March 26, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09
David Munchinski’s blue prison uniform was speckled with rain droplets, and his first sights upon re-entering society were microphones and flashing cameras, but he was happy. With the help of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, he became a free man.
While the local media encircled the freed convict that day last October, Innocence Institute apprentice Jeffrey Stitt crept around the crowd to photograph Munchinski standing with his arms behind his back. But instead of being bound by handcuffs, the photo captured him embracing his daughter.
“It was just really powerful to see this man who’s been locked up behind bars for 25 years walk out and appreciate the rain falling on his face,” said Stitt, a junior journalism and multimedia major. “It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.”
For the past 11 years, the Innocence Institute of Point Park has provided a mutually beneficial opportunity for students to gain investigative reporting experience and for convicted criminals – all claiming innocence – to have their voices heard. Since the announcement that the Institute would be closing at the semester’s end, the students who work there have spent time reflecting on their experiences.
“It’s definitely paid off, and if I could do it all over again, I would,” Stitt said.
The Innocence Institute investigates cases of wrongful conviction and, through reporting, brings to light injustices in the judicial system. The program is directed by Bill Moushey, a journalism professor at the university and investigative reporter for more than 30 years.
“Bill has been one of the most inspirational and influential people academically and journalistically that I’ve ever met,” Stitt said, adding that the chance to learn from Moushey was the initial reason he joined the Innocence Institute.
Through the Institute’s extensive investigations, 17 incarcerated individuals were found to be innocent and were subsequently exonerated. The Institute has also received numerous regional and national awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Graphic Design USA and several other prestigious organizations.
Despite all its achievements, the lack of financial support from administration and an insufficient number of student participants has led to the closing of the Institute – the “only reasonable outcome,” according to a letter written by Moushey on the Institute’s website.
In addition, the Innocence Institute journalism course will be eliminated, the Justice magazine will be discontinued and three apprentices and three work-study students will have to seek jobs elsewhere in the fall.
Moushey has chosen not to address media questions at this time, but he wrote in his letter that the institute has “not only enabled young men and women as investigative reporters in the criminal justice field, but changed the lives of many people whose convictions were overturned through its journalistic efforts.”
Ronald Lindblom, acting dean of the School of Communication, also issued a statement to students last week regarding the closing of the Institute. He stated that Moushey and current graduate assistants would work over the next year to transfer cases to the appropriate parties.
He also explained that the decision will be beneficial to students’ education.
“Transitioning from a practical-based operation to a theoretical-based curriculum in the Point Park News Service will serve and expose more students to investigative journalism,” he wrote in the statement.
This statement irked students who currently work with the Innocence Institute, because they view the program as a one-of-a-kind experience.
“In my opinion, one of the best types of learning is hands-on … I don’t know what else would be more valuable than that,” Stitt said, adding that the Innocence Institute afforded him the opportunity to report from courtrooms and prisons, as well as work alongside professionals.
Paige Krivda, a work-study at the Institute, expressed similar sentiments.
“You can’t get opportunities like that at any other organization here; you just can’t,” said Krivda, a freshman broadcasting and international business major. “It’s hard news, and it’s hard in every sense of the word. It’s news that matters … and there are so many people who would be helped by it, and you just [have to] tell them that you can’t now.”
Although her time at the Institute has been brief after only two semesters, learning that her work would be permanently coming to an end came as a shock.
“It was honestly like losing someone. I swear I was in a state of grieving for a couple of days,” Krivda said.
Throughout high school, Krivda was active in her mock trials team, where she developed an interest in the justice system. She had no reporting experience when she joined the Innocence Institute, but within two weeks she was equipped with a reporter’s notebook and was interviewing attorneys at various trials.
“It was the complete opposite of being an attorney and asking questions to witnesses and knowing how they would react and being a reporter interviewing an attorney,” Krivda said. “I knew it the other way around, so I learned to kind of reverse that.”
Krivda was also present during the release of Munchinski, who was falsely convicted for a double-murder. She said she felt proud to be part of a program that could make such a great impact.
Although Krivda’s experience could secure her a job at another department in the School of Communication, she is uninterested.
“I don’t want my job as a work-study if it’s not at the Innocence Institute … I was doing it for the experience, not the money,” she said.
Kelly Cline, a senior journalism and global cultural studies major and apprentice at the Institute, will also be forced to find another job during her final year of undergraduate study. But until then, she plans to work even harder to ensure her final project with the Institute has an impact.