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High court won't review journalist's conviction in Flight 800 case

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    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Newsgathering         Nov 28, 2000    

High court won’t review journalist’s conviction in Flight 800 case

  • The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the convictions of James Sanders and his wife over charges that they conspired to remove seat fabric from the wreckage of a downed TWA jet.

The U. S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of a journalist and his wife who were both convicted of conspiring to remove seat fabric from the wreckage of TWA Flight 800.

In an order issued on Nov. 27, the justices denied James and Elizabeth Sanders’ petition for certiorari. Therefore, a lower court’s sentence of probation and community service stands. James Sanders alleged the federal prosecution was in retaliation for his refusal to name the person who gave him the seat fabric. He also claimed the compelled disclosure of a confidential source violated the reporter’s privilege.

Sanders, an investigative freelance reporter, obtained the seat fabric to test a reddish-orange chemical substance that he speculated might be missile fuel residue. He used the test results as evidence in his 1997 book, “The Downing of TWA Flight 800,” in which he argued that the U.S. military had mistakenly shot down the airliner with a missile.

The source who provided the material, Capt. Terrell Stacey, a senior TWA pilot whom Elizabeth Sanders introduced to her husband, testified against the Sanderses in federal district court after prosecutors learned of his identity through a subpoena of the Sanderses’ telephone records. Stacey had earlier disposed of his own case by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.

In July 1999, the pair were convicted of violating a federal statue that makes unlawful the removal, concealment or withholding of parts of a civilian aircraft involved in an accident. James Sanders was sentenced to three years probation and 50 hours of community service. Elizabeth, a TWA flight attendant, was sentenced to one year probation along with 25 hours of community service.

Following the guilty verdict, the Sanderses appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2nd Cir.). The appellate court affirmed the guilty verdict on May 4, finding that Sanders’ prosecution was not vindictive and was not protected by the First Amendment.

(U.S. v. Sanders; Defense Counsel: J. Bruce Maffeo, New York City; Jeremy Gutman, New York City) LR

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© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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