NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MISSISSIPPI · Confidentiality/Privilege · June 13, 2007
Judge rules reporter cannot be forced to testify
June 13, 2007 · A federal judge in Jackson, Miss., ruled Monday that investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell cannot be forced to testify in the trial of alleged Klansman James Ford Seale.
Seale is charged in connection with the 1964 abduction, beating and killing of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, and federal prosecutors sought Mitchell’s testimony regarding a 2000 interview with Seale.
The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger reported that Mitchell asked Seale during the interview if he had anything to do with the crime, and Seale responded, “I ain’t in jail, am I?”
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate said he was not persuaded that the testimony sought would be relevant to the case, since it was not a confession or an admission, according to Clarion-Ledger articles.
Although The Clarion-Ledger argued that the testimony sought was privileged under the First Amendment, Wingate decided the issue on evidentiary grounds rather than constitutional grounds, said Leonard Van Slyke, an attorney for the newspaper.
Wingate did not issue a written ruling on the issue, but Van Slyke said his decision was based on the fact that the testimony sought would be considered hearsay, which is not admissible in court.
“Regardless of what the judge’s reasons were for making the ruling, it is still very important,” Van Slyke said. “There probably wouldn’t have been such a trial were it not for Jerry Mitchell’s (investigative reporting) work.”
Mitchell has spent nearly two decades investigating and writing about civil rights-era crimes and is covering the Seale trial for The Clarion-Ledger. Seale has pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping and conspiracy charges.
Van Slyke said the ruling was good for journalists, even if it was not decided on First Amendment grounds.
“Any time a reporter is required to be utilized as an investigative arm of the government, that tends to have a chilling effect, and I’m pleased he wasn’t so required,” Van Slyke said.
(U.S. v. Seale, Media Counsel: Leonard Van Slyke, Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis, P.A., Jackson, Miss.) — JB