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Author jailed for refusing to turn over notes

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From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

A Texas woman has gone to prison after refusing to turn over notes from interviews she had with players in a Houston murder. Vanessa Leggett, a crime writer and college lecturer, surrendered to authorities on July 20.

“I just feel like I’m doing what I have to do to protect my First Amendment right to freedom of the press,” Leggett told the Associated Press on July 21. “I feel like what they are doing is wrong.”

Leggett was held in civil contempt on July 20 for failing to comply with a court order for her to turn over her notes. Her attorney said she could be held up to 18 months, unless she agrees to cooperate with the court.

On July 6, Leggett lost an attempt in federal district court in Houston to get a grand jury subpoena served upon her quashed. Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas ruled the author had to turn over her notes. Leggett had argued to the court that she was protected by a reporter’s privilege under the state and federal constitutions.

“After reviewing the facts and the applicable law, this court agrees with the government that the Fifth Circuit does not recognize such a privilege as protecting a journalist from divulging either confidential or nonconfidential information in a criminal case,” Harmon held.

Leggett’s attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said he filed an emergency motion to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) for a stay of the order holding Leggett in contempt or for bond pending the appeal of the order of contempt. An emergency panel denied the stay and denied the motion for bond, but granted a motion for an expedited appeal, he said. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Leggett, arguing that the First Amendment protects her right not to disclose confidential sources and information.

The case has serious implications for the status of a reporter’s privilege in Texas and the Fifth Circuit. Texas has no shield law, and the federal courts have whittled away at the concept of a First Amendment-based reporter’s privilege. Several media attorneys contacted about the case were fearful that Leggett’s case could limit the recognition further, or eliminate it altogether.

Leggett, who lectures at a local college, is a writer. She was working on a book on the death of a Houston woman, Doris Angleton, who was found shot to death in April 1997. Angleton’s millionaire bookie husband Robert Angleton and his brother, Roger, were charged in the case. Roger committed suicide in the Harris County, Texas, jail in February 1998. A state court jury acquitted Robert, and a federal investigation of Roger soon followed.

Leggett had interviews from dozens of people surrounding the case, and it has been reported that she interviewed Roger before his death.