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Justice Department sidesteps request to free jailed author

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege         Oct 1, 2001    

Justice Department sidesteps request to free jailed author

  • A government attorney said Vanessa Leggett has had ‘recourse of the courts’ but didn’t indicate if the department applied its guidelines for subpoenaing reporters to her.

The Justice Department apparently isn’t ready to free a Houston author who has spent 10 weeks in jail for refusing to disclose confidential information to a federal grand jury.

In a letter dated Sept. 27 to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Justice Department official noted that Vanessa Leggett has lost twice in court: once to the federal district court that held her in contempt, and again when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Houston (5th Cir.) rejected her appeal.

“She has thus had the recourse of the district and appellate courts to protect her rights during the grand jury process,” wrote Timothy D. Wing, counsel to the director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

In a Sept. 5 letter, the Reporters Committee urged Attorney General John Ashcroft to intervene and allow Leggett to leave jail. The press freedom group asked Ashcroft to acknowledge that Leggett is a journalist and apply its guidelines for subpoenaing reporters to Leggett. If those guidelines had been followed, the subpoena for Leggett’s research would be withdrawn, the civil contempt charge would be dissolved and Leggett would be freed from jail, the Reporters Committee argued in its letter.

Wing responded that the Justice Department did consider its guidelines. However, the letter didn’t say specifically whether the department considered Leggett a journalist and applied its guidelines to her.

“The Justice Department recognizes that news gathering is essential to a free press,” Wing wrote. “I assure you that this matter was thoroughly and appropriately reviewed within the Department of Justice, and that full consideration of the guidelines was accorded.”

Leggett spent four years researching a high-profile Houston murder case for a book she planned to write. She was jailed on July 20 for refusing to disclose her sources or research materials. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Houston (5th Cir.) on Aug. 17 upheld the contempt citation and ruled that no reporter’s privilege exists against a grand jury subpoena. The court did not decide whether an unpublished book author is a journalist, finding instead that Leggett has no privilege to refuse to turn over her notes to a grand jury whether or not she is a journalist.

(In re Grand Jury Subpoena; Author’s Counsel: Mike DeGeurin, Houston) MD

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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