From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.
The reality of freedom hit Vanessa Leggett the morning after she walked out of the Federal Detention Center in Houston on Jan. 4. After 168 days in jail, Leggett woke up in her own bed.
“The space I slept in in jail was like sleeping in a coffin, it was so narrow,” said Leggett, a 33-year-old aspiring book author. Once home, she found herself still sleeping as if she were confined to her jail cell’s bunk bed. “I would wake up rigid and in a small space. I wouldn’t be spread out like I used to be in my bed.”
In the weeks after returning to her Houston home, her husband, Doak, and her pets, Leggett has concentrated on getting her life back to normal. After months of fighting for a journalist’s right to protect her confidential sources, she has returned to writing the book that landed her in so much trouble.
Leggett has spent four years — excluding the more than five months she spent in jail — researching the 1997 shooting death of Houston socialite Doris Angleton. When Leggett refused to comply with a federal grand jury subpoena seeking all of her tape-recorded interviews with her sources, including all copies of transcripts, a federal district court judge found her in civil contempt and ordered her to jail.
Leggett went to jail on July 20 and was released on Jan. 4, not because a court found that she had been wrongly jailed, but because the term of the grand jury that subpoenaed her research had expired.
Leggett’s attorney, Mike DeGeurin, worried that another grand jury would convene and subpoena Leggett again. Those concerns eased on Jan. 24, when a new grand jury indicted Angleton’s husband, Robert Angleton, in connection with the murder. The new grand jury did not try to subpoena Leggett’s research.
However, Leggett could be subpoenaed to testify during the criminal trial and ordered again to reveal her sources. If that happens, Leggett said she is ready to go to jail again if necessary.
“I sincerely believe in the public’s interest in a free and independent press,” she said in a telephone interview. “If the government is successful in compelling me to produce this information, I think that’s an attack against free speech. And I don’t want to give up and surrender to that attack. And really, it would make the time I did seem worthless.”
Going to jail a second time might be easier because she would know what to expect, she said.
“Whenever you’re facing something like jail, the unknown makes it worse. Just not knowing what to anticipate makes anticipating it seem so much worse,” she said. “But now that I know exactly what to expect and how my day-to-day existence will be, I think it will be easier to return.”
Leggett was not charged with a crime, but she said she was treated the same in jail as the other inmates. She said she spent one night in solitary confinement for an infraction that she will not discuss in detail.
“Jail personnel asked me to do something. I was willing to comply if they showed me the policy where it said I had to do something,” she said. “They would not show me the policy, would not let me call my lawyer, and they put me in solitary.”
The incident happened about two days after a prison official told her she could not publish under her byline while she was in custody. The official had seen an article she wrote from prison that was published in Newsweek. The article mentioned that the jail’s toilet paper was abrasive and that the line to use the phone was sometimes so long that the phone was turned off before her turn.
Leggett was given no toilet paper while in solitary confinement, she said. She also was denied phone privileges for a month, she said.
Federal Detention Center spokesman Sean Marler would not discuss any disciplinary actions that might have been taken against Leggett. He said inmates who are put in solitary confinement — the jail calls it “administrative detention” — are provided necessary hygiene items, such as toilet paper.
Leggett has heard her share of criticism for the stand she has taken, and she has ready answers.
Why is she withholding information that could send a murderer to prison? She replies that prosecutors already had enough information to charge a suspect, and, if they needed more they had other ways to get it than from her.
“The government should not be able to come in and seize wholesale a writer’s work,” she said. “I think that sets a very dangerous precedent where the government will in the future on investigations say, ‘OK, let’s start our investigation by first, find out every reporter who has covered a certain story, let’s seize their archives, and see where we go from there.’ ”
Why does she think the public would suffer if she was forced to disclose her sources?
“They won’t find out the truth. If people don’t feel like they can open up and communicate freely with members of the press, then the truth may never be known because people won’t tell law enforcement things that they will tell a writer. And that’s precisely why the government tried to use me.”
Whether Leggett is a journalist entitled to a reporter’s privilege to protect confidential sources also has been debated. In addition to the Newsweek commentary, Leggett’s publishing credentials include her work as co-editor of two FBI publications on homicide and as author of two articles within those publications. But, other than her column in Newsweek, she has never been published in mainstream publications.
Courts have avoided the question.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Houston (5th Cir.), which upheld the contempt order, called Leggett a “virtually unpublished freelance writer operating without an employer or contract for publication.” However, the court did not decide whether Leggett qualified as a journalist because it held that there was no privilege to be applied, whether or not Leggett was a journalist. But the three-judge panel also said in a footnote that if it had to decide whether she was a journalist, the standard would have been whether Leggett had an intent at the time she gathered the material to disseminate it to the public. (In re Grand Jury Subpoenas)
Leggett believes she meets that test. Before the subpoena, an agent was talking to her about her book. She also had won writing awards based on early chapters of her manuscript, she said.
An agent is talking to her again, she said. And she hopes to work without governmental interruption on the book, which now will include a chapter on her months in jail. — MD