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Innocence Victim

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Since 2001, Bill Moushey, a veteran P-G investigative reporter and Point Park journalism professor, has overseen a team of students investigating criminal cases whose convictions were in doubt. The institute's work has resulted in 11 overturned convictions and a series of articles published in the P-G, where they often appeared under student bylines.

Point Park University's widely touted Innocence Institute -- which has helped free nearly a dozen wrongfully convicted Pennsylvanians from prison -- is in jeopardy. And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette may have signed its death warrant.

Since 2001, Bill Moushey, a veteran P-G investigative reporter and Point Park journalism professor, has overseen a team of students investigating criminal cases whose convictions were in doubt. The institute's work has resulted in 11 overturned convictions and a series of articles published in the P-G, where they often appeared under student bylines.

But in a July 11 e-mail sent to Institute supporters and obtained by City Paper, Moushey wrote: "Last month, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, citing financial problems, ended its partnership with the Innocence Institute. Then after a flurry of activity in the past two weeks (where we sought funding, other partnerships, etc.), officials at Point Park University stated it was not going to offer increased funding to keep this valuable project going. It also stifled suggestions that leaders of the Journalism [Department] seek outside funds to keep this valuable project afloat. The result: Unless something dramatic happens, I will soon announce closure of this project."

Moushey declined to discuss the e-mail or the future of the program with CP, and Point Park spokesperson Ginny Frizzi could shed little light on the institute's fate. The institute gave students valuable journalism experience, she says, but the school "is currently undergoing a strategic planning process.

"[W]e will look at the Innocence Institute and all programs at the university," Frizzi adds. "No decision has been made regarding the program's future." When asked about claims that the university had "stifled" efforts to find funding, Frizzi said she could not comment.

Post-Gazette editor David Shribman confirms that the paper has ended its support of the partnership -- not to save money, he says, but to get more value from the money it is currently spending. Shribman says the P-G has been paying Moushey for his work with the institute; now it wants Moushey to focus on producing more articles instead. "We have a very high regard for Bill and wanted more Moushey in the newspaper," Shribman says. "His value to this newspaper is the main reason that we are making this move."

The P-G's financial condition has been precarious; last year the company cited losses of $20 million during contract talks with union workers. "Like many newspapers, we have been examining our costs very carefully," Shribman says. "The institute has done really good work, but the times call for us to do something different."

Moushey will remain a member of the Point Park faculty and a part-time P-G reporter, according to his e-mail and Shribman.

There are about 30 innocence projects in the country. However, Point Park's is one of the few spearheaded by a journalism department and not a law school. One of the institute's highest-profile cases involved the 1986 murder conviction of David Munchinski, in Fayette County. The institute's investigation revealed that prosecutors had "altered or hid evidence." In October 2004, a visiting judge overturned Munchinski's conviction and life sentence. However, prosecutors appealed and the conviction was eventually upheld by the state Supreme Court. A federal appeal is pending.

"We have accomplished great things in the classroom and in social justice. I am heartbroken at this bizarre turn of events," Moushey wrote in the e-mail. "The ultimate irony came last Friday when I learned another one of our cases has been reopened (Da'ron Cox murder case)."

Cox was convicted of murder at the age of 18 and given a life sentence. His case was profiled in an institute investigation focusing on suspects who are tricked into giving false confessions. Several witnesses have come forward and insisted that Cox was not the killer.

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