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Jailing of reporter stayed by federal court

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Jailing of reporter stayed by federal court01/15/96 TEXAS--In early January, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin decided 7-2 to…

Jailing of reporter stayed by federal court

01/15/96

TEXAS–In early January, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin decided 7-2 to deny the appeal of a Houston Chronicle reporter who was ordered jailed for refusing to identify her confidential sources to a grand jury.

Attorneys for the reporter, Jennifer Lenhart, immediately filed a habeas corpus petition in federal Distict Court in Houston. The federal court stayed the trial court’s order and Lenhart was allowed to remain free on bail. A decision by the federal court is expected by late January. The court could find that Lenhart has been unlawfully deprived of her liberty and order the Texas court not to jail her.

In its opinion, which was designated “do not publish,” the Court of Criminal Appeals did not explain its reasoning, stating only that it arrived at its decision “upon due consideration.”

District Judge Mike McSpadden held Lenhart in contempt in late December after she refused to name the grand jurors who spoke to her under a promise of confidentiality. The Harris County district attorney is seeking to indict the grand jurors for violating the state’s grand jury secrecy laws.

The sources were members of a grand jury panel in Harris County that in late September voted not to indict a Bellaire police officer who fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old boy. The next day, two of the grand jurors contacted Lenhart and told her that they were among seven on the panel who voted to indict the police officer and that they were unhappy that the police officer would be released. Lenhart’s story in the Chronicle reported on the grand jury’s internal controversy and identified her sources as members of the grand jury panel.

Before the Court of Criminal Appeals, Lenhart argued that she had a right under the First Amendment and the Texas Constitution to refuse to reveal her confidential sources. She asked the court to reconsider its 1994 opinion that reporters have no privilege to withhold evidence in criminal cases.

Lenhart argued that the public’s interest in receiving truthful, newsworthy information concerning grand jury deliberations outweighed the state’s interest in her testimony. She contended that the state first must seek the information it needed from alternative sources.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that reporters need protection from compelled disclosure of their confidential sources in order to ensure the media’s ability to gather and disseminate news. (Ex Parte Lenhart; Media Counsel: William Ogden and Joel White, Houston)