ARIZONA — A federal appeals court in early September at least temporarily spared a book author who was 15 minutes from being jailed for refusing to turn over interview notes.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) stayed an order for the arrest of Ronald Watkins, who was scheduled to voluntarily surrender to authorities on Sept. 8. Watkins’ arrest was ordered by U.S. District Judge Bruce Van Sickle in Phoenix after Watkins refused to comply with the judge’s order to disclose information.
Van Sickle ordered Watkins to turn over documents relating to his interviews with L.S. Shoen, founder of Phoenix-based U-Haul International Inc. Shoen is being sued for libel by two of his sons, Joe and Mark Shoen, for allegedly claiming in interviews that his two sons may have been involved in the murder of a family member.
The district court’s arrest order called for Watkins’ incarceration until the conclusion of the Shoen libel trial or the disclosure of the demanded documents. Watkins’ attorney, Guy Price, said that although the trial is scheduled to start in mid-November, he does not expect it to begin until December or as late as January 1995.
The stay will be in effect pending the appeal of the district court’s order to disclose documents. Watkins’ attorney, Guy Price, said he will seek review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court if the Ninth Circuit affirms Van Sickle’s order to disclose the documents.
Watkins’ 1993 book “Birthright” discussed the murder of Eva Berg Shoen, who was shot to death in the family’s cabin near Telluride, Colo. Price said that only four of the more than 100 people interviewed went on record for Watkins’ book, and many of the confidential sources are “terrified” of Joe and Mark Shoen. Price said the Shoen brothers are “desperate to know who has cooperated” with Watkins.
Price is also concerned that incarceration in the county jail system could be “physically dangerous” for Watkins. Price said that Watkins was a probation officer for more than ten years in Arizona and California and was responsible for writing sentence recommendations for convicted felons. For these reasons, Price believes that the risk of harm to Watkins in jail is “akin to incarcerating a police officer.” (Shoen v. Shoen; Media Counsel: Guy Price, Phoenix)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.