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Two reporters face prospect of paying $40,000 contempt fines

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

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

Contempt fines for $40,000 each are pending against two Philadelphia reporters who refused to provide information from interviews with a murder defendant, according to attorneys for the reporters. The reporters’ newspapers have filed appeals and bonds that stayed the court’s order and fines.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan (1st Dist.) ordered a $100 per minute fine against reporters from the The Philadelphia Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 13 rather than jail them as the prosecutor requested. The fines ran during hours the court was in session because, the court reasoned, this was a civil contempt fine designed to coerce the reporters to testify.

Bryan Tyson was convicted on Dec. 19 for murdering his neighbor, Damon Millner. An Inquirer reporter, Mark Bowden, reported in a three-part series in June 1998 that Tyson had frequently confronted cocaine dealers in his neighborhood. Linn Washington, a Temple University law professor who was a contributing reporter for the Tribune, wrote articles for that newspaper on the shooting.

Tyson claimed he shot Millner in self-defense, but prosecutors disputed that notion and called Tyson a vigilante who tried to rid his neighborhood of drug dealers. Prosecutors sought all information the reporters gathered in interviews for the articles as material for cross-examination of Tyson. Tyson was convicted of third-degree murder and could be sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

Greenspan ordered the reporters to surrender the information in a Dec. 4 order that reasoned that the Pennsylvania shield law is not an absolute privilege. Although she ruled the prosecutor was “not entitled to a ‘fishing expedition,'” she decided the prosecutor must be allowed to obtain the reporters’ information.

In one cursory paragraph, Greenspan ruled the prosecutors were entitled to the information because it was unavailable from another source, it covered statements relevant to the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and it was necessary to the prosecution’s case. The court rejected the notion that the reporters’ notes and interview information were covered by an absolute privilege.

The court limited the scope of the order to “verbatim or substantially verbatim statements of the defendant involving the incident itself or such statements of the defendant which speak to his relationship to drug dealers in his neighborhood.” The court’s order included published and unpublished statements.

The reporters resisted turning over the information, although Bowden testified during the trial about information that had been published.

“He always couched his answers in terms of what the published articles stated,” Bob Clothier, an attorney for Bowden, said. “Where the question went to unpublished information, he declined to answer.”

“The job of a newspaper is not to serve as an investigative arm of the prosecution,” Inquirer editor Robert J. Rosenthal said in the paper.

Weeks after the jury returned the verdict, the court clarified the fine to $40,000, $3,000 more than an amount prosecutors calculated earlier in the case.

Clothier and Simone White, Washington’s attorney, said a notice of an appeal has been filed with the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the first level of appellate review. The newspapers each paid a $48,000 bond to stay the obligation to pay the fine. The court has not provided a schedule for briefing in the case. –DB