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Contempt penalty against journalists overturned in Klaas case

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Contempt penalty against journalists overturned in Klaas case08/12/96 CALIFORNIA--A San Jose television reporter and news director will not have to…

Contempt penalty against journalists overturned in Klaas case


CALIFORNIA–A San Jose television reporter and news director will not have to go to jail for refusing to reveal the confidential source they used in reporting on a confession in the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, the Court of Appeal in San Jose ruled in late July.

The court unanimously overturned a trial judge’s contempt ruling against reporter Beth Willon and news director Terrence McElhatton. The judge had sought the identity of their confidential source to determine whether any attorneys or court officials had violated a gag order that was intended to keep secret aspects of the case that might prejudice potential jurors. The Court of Appeal ruled that the state shield law protects reporters from being held in contempt for refusing to reveal their confidential sources unless there is a specific showing that failure to disclose the source will create a substantial probability of injury to a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial.

County attorneys, on behalf of the trial judge, argued that the shield law should not be construed to limit the court’s ability to control its own officers because to do so would violate the principle of separation of powers. The court responded that the shield law, which was incorporated into the state constitution in 1980, was binding on the trial judge.

“Here … the defendant’s right to a fair trial must be considered not in isolation but in relation to a competing constitutional interest, albeit a subordinate one,” the court stated.

The court ruled that, when a violation of a gag order has occurred, a trial court should consider whether there is a substantial probability that future “leaks” will impair the defendant’s ability to obtain a fair trial and whether there are any alternative methods of obtaining the information without compelling journalists to disclose their sources.

Applying its own test, the court found that it was not necessary to compel Willon and McElhatton to disclose their source in order to assure the defendant a fair trial, because all of the information they reported was already in the public domain.

Judge Eugene Premo concurred in the judgment, but said that he would defer to the California Supreme Court to determine the standards that should be applied in such cases. (In re Willon, et al.; Media Counsel: Edward Davis, San Jose)