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Congresswoman demands Justice Department free jailed reporter

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         TEXAS         Confidentiality/Privilege         Nov 23, 2001    

Congresswoman demands Justice Department free jailed reporter

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee demanded in a letter to the Attorney General that federal prosecutors withdraw the subpoena that led to the incarceration of author Vanessa Leggett.

A congresswoman who has championed the First Amendment rights of jailed journalist Vanessa Leggett demanded again that federal prosecutors free Leggett.

“Ms. Leggett presents no risk of flight, nor does she pose any threat to society or herself. Her only ‘crime’ was to protect her confidential sources in keeping with the traditional constitutional notions of a free press,” Jackson Lee said in a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. “If ever there was a case in which the crime simply didn’t fit the punishment, this most surely is the case.”

Jackson Lee visited Leggett in jail for the second time on Nov. 21, just before speaking to the media about the letter at the Federal Detention Center in Houston, where Leggett has been incarcerated since July 20.

Leggett, who has spent 126 days in jail, has refused to comply with a subpoena from federal prosecutors seeking four years of research for a book she plans to write about the murder-for-hire of Houston socialite Doris Angleton.

Jackson Lee repeated a demand she made this summer, insisting that Ashcroft intervene in Leggett’s case and withdraw the subpoena, which would free Leggett. A previous response from the Justice Department to Jackson Lee’s plea had deferred to court rulings that required Leggett to comply with the subpoena.

Leggett, a free-lance writer, has claimed a reporter’s privilege to keep her sources confidential. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Houston (5th Cir.) ruled in August that whether or not Leggett is a journalist, no reporter’s privilege exists in the context of a grand jury subpoena. The full appellate court let that ruling stand on Nov. 13 and refused to free Leggett on bond while her appeal proceeds.

Leggett plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, has said he will argue that the federal district judge who jailed Leggett for contempt should have balanced the federal prosecutors’ need for the information against the public’s interest in a free press.

Unless she wins her appeal or decides to hand over her research, Leggett will remain in jail until the grand jury term expires. The term originally was to expire on Oct. 12 but was extended to Jan. 7.

(In re Grand Jury Subpoenas; Author’s counsel: Mike DeGeurin, Foreman, DeGeurin, Nugent & Gerger, Houston) MD

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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