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Author lands in jail for refusing to turn over notes

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
    NMU         TEXAS    

    NMU         TEXAS         Confidentiality/Privilege         Jul 25, 2001    

Author lands in jail for refusing to turn over notes

  • A federal district court in Houston refused to recognize a constitutional reporter’s privilege

A Texas woman went to prison after refusing to turn over notes from interviews she had with players in a Houston murder. Vanessa Leggett, a crime writer and college lecturer, surrendered to authorities on July 20.

“I just feel like I’m doing what I have to do to protect my First Amendment right to freedom of the press,” Leggett told the Associated Press on July 21. “I feel like what they are doing is wrong.”

Leggett lost an attempt in federal district court in Houston on July 6 to get a grand jury subpoena against her quashed. Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas ruled the author had to turn over her notes. Leggett had argued to the court that she was protected by a reporters privilege under the state and federal constitutions.

“After reviewing the facts and the applicable law, this court agrees with the government that the Fifth Circuit does not recognize such a privilege as protecting a journalist from divulging either confidential or nonconfidential information in a criminal case,” Harmon said in the opinion.

Leggett’s attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said he filed an emergency motion to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) for a stay of the order holding Leggett in contempt or for bond pending the appeal of the order of contempt. An emergency panel denied the stay and denied the motion for bond, but granted a motion for an expedited appeal, he said.

The case has serious implications for the status of a reporters privilege in Texas. Texas has no shield law and no legal precedent for the proposition that the circuit does not respect a constitutional reporters privilege. Several media attorneys contacted about the case were fearful that Leggett’s case could set a bad legal precedent in the state.

Leggett, who lectures at a local college, is a writer. She was working on a book on the death of a Houston woman, Doris Angleton, who was found shot to death in April 1997. Angleton’s millionaire bookie husband Robert Angleton and his brother, Roger, were charged in the case. Roger committed suicide in the Harris County, Texas jail in February 1998. A state court jury acquitted Robert, and a federal investigation of Roger soon followed.

Leggett had interviews from dozens of people surrounding the case, and it has been reported that she interviewed Roger before his death.

(In re Grand Jury Subpoena; Author’s Counsel: Mike DeGeurin, Houston) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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