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Appeals court to determine jailed journalist’s fate in secret proceeding

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT         Confidentiality/Privilege         Aug 9, 2001    

Appeals court to determine jailed journalist’s fate in secret proceeding

  • A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals sitting in Houston (5th Cir.) has decided that its review of book author Vanessa Leggett’s contempt citation should take place behind closed doors.

An appellate hearing to determine the fate of a journalist who has spent the last three weeks in jail will be closed to the public by order of a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Houston (5th Cir.).

Vanessa Leggett, a book author who is researching a high-profile Houston murder case, will have spent 26 days in jail by the time of the secret hearing, which is scheduled for Aug. 15 at 2:00 pm. She was jailed on July 20 for refusing to testify about her sources and disclose her research materials before a federal grand jury.

The court also denied the request of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to take part in the oral argument, even though Leggett’s attorney consented to the request and was willing to give up part of his argument time. The Reporters Committee filed an amicus brief in the case, along with the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. An additional 20 media organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, ABC, CBS and NBC, are scheduled to petition the court today to join the brief. Many of the same media parties are planning to contest the court’s decision to close the hearing.

The case could have a substantial impact on the reporter’s privilege in the Fifth Circuit. The circuit substantially limited the right in a 1998 case, finding that the First Amendment provides reporters with no protection from compelled testimony and disclosure of nonconfidential material in criminal cases. Media lawyers worry that while the facts of that case were limited to nonconfidential material, the court’s reasoning was much broader and could be extended in this case to cover even confidential sources and materials.

The judge’s July 6 order refusing to quash the subpoena remains under seal, as do the briefs filed by the parties with the appellate court.

The federal grand jury is reportedly investigating Robert Angleton, who was acquitted in state court on charges of hiring his brother to kill his wife. Doris Angleton was found shot to death in April 1997. Roger, the brother accused of carrying out the killing, committed suicide in the Harris County, Texas, jail in February 1998. Leggett has interviewed dozens of people surrounding the case, including Roger. Federal prosecutors will not disclose any details of the grand jury investigation.

(In re: Grand Jury Subpoena; Journalist’s Counsel: Mike DeGeurin, Houston; Media Amici’s Counsel: Charles Babcock, Robert Latham, John Edwards; Jackson Walker LLP, Houston) GL

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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