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High court turns back two reporter's privilege cases

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
NORTH CAROLINA--In late July, the state Supreme Court in Raleigh decided two cases in favor of prosecutors trying to compel…

NORTH CAROLINA–In late July, the state Supreme Court in Raleigh decided two cases in favor of prosecutors trying to compel testimony from journalists.

The court decided not to review a Raleigh News & Observer reporter’s appeal of a Durham trial court order directing him to turn over notes from a jailhouse interview. The court ruled, without opinion, that its March 1998 grant of review of the trial court order was “improvidently allowed.”

The court also affirmed the issuance of a Raleigh trial court’s contempt order against WCNC-TV reporter Sarah Owens without discussion. Owens was found in contempt for refusing a prosecutor’s demands for testimony regarding statements made during an 1997 interview with G. Bryan Collins, the attorney representing accused murderer William Boychuk.

The March 1998 grant of review in the News & Observer case delayed enforcement of Judge Orlando Hudson’s order that reporter Andrew Curliss produce notes from his interview with Derrick Allen in the Durham County jail. Curliss interviewed Allen two days after Allen was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting and killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, Adesha Artis. The state Supreme Court’s July ruling leaves Curliss subject to the trial court’s order.

Despite the high court’s affirmance of the contempt order against Owens, she faces no further jail time or fines. Her sentence already had been reduced to time served by the same trial judge who originally ordered her to jail for 30 days. She had spent approximately two hours in jail when the judge determined her testimony was no longer necessary and reduced the sentence to time served.

North Carolina recently enacted a “shield law” that provides a qualified privilege for journalists and protects them from forced disclosure of sources or information obtained during newsgathering, but it does not become effective until October 1999. (In re Andrew Curliss, In re Sarah Lynn Owens; Counsel for Curliss: Hugh Stevens, Raleigh; Counsel for Owens: Jonathan Buchan, Raleigh)