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Editor held in contempt for failing to hand over photographs

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         ILLINOIS         Confidentiality/Privilege         Sep 14, 2000    

Editor held in contempt for failing to hand over photographs

  • An Illinois newspaper editor refused to release unpublished photographs of a crime scene, but the judge’s order to jail the editor has been stayed pending an appeal.

Peggy Bellows, the editor of the Decatur, Ill., Herald & Review, was ordered jailed Sept. 8 for failing to turn over photographs to a criminal defendant, but Judge James A. Hendrian granted a stay of the sentence pending her appeal.

At issue in the case are unpublished photos of a crime scene taken by a staff photographer in March 1998. The defendant, Michael Slover, Jr., is accused of murdering and dismembering the body of his wife, Karyn Hearn Slover. The photos depict a police search of a car lot owned by the defendant’s parents, who have also been charged in the murder. The defense attorney argued he needed the photographs to determine whether police had contaminated the crime scene investigation.

The Illinois reporter’s privilege law prohibits a court from compelling a person to disclose the source of information obtained by a reporter. On Aug. 28, the judge ruled the privilege law did not control because the defendant did not ask the newspaper to disclose any “source of information.”

The attorney for the Herald & Review, Joseph Thornton, argued the request for the news photos was inappropriate because the defendant must exhaust all other sources of information before requiring a reporter to testify. In this case, the parties had more than 1,100 state police photographs available for review.

In ruling against the newspaper, the judge emphasized the defendant sought only to view unpublished photographs. Additionally, the judge ruled, the defendant should not be forced to interview police witnesses before seeking to obtain the newspaper photographs because the defendant “should not be required to rely upon those who would convict him for such information.”

Hendrian ruled finally that neither the First Amendment nor the Illinois Constitution required a different result. Hendrian said there was no evidence of bad faith on the defense’s part, nothing done to harass the paper, and no requests for sources of information.

The newspaper has filed an appeal and Thornton expects a hearing in three to six months.

(Illinois v. Michael Slover, Jr.; Media Counsel: Joseph Thornton) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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