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Newspaper fights subpoena for letters from prisoner accused of murder

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Newspaper fights subpoena for letters from prisoner accused of murder02/26/96 INDIANA--The Sullivan County Circuit Court in mid-February ordered the Terre…

Newspaper fights subpoena for letters from prisoner accused of murder

02/26/96

INDIANA–The Sullivan County Circuit Court in mid-February ordered the Terre Haute Tribune-Star to turn over a letter sent to the newspaper by a prisoner accused of killing a fellow inmate. The newspaper has until Feb. 26 to comply with the order before it could be found in contempt of court.

Another newspaper, the Sullivan Daily Times, has complied with a subpoena seeking a similar letter.

Prosecutors subpoenaed the letters as evidence against inmate Robert Smith, who will be tried for murder in mid-March. Smith is accused of stabbing a fellow inmate in late June 1995.

The Terre Haute Tribune-Star filed a motion to quash, arguing that it did not have to release the letters because the information was protected under a qualified reporters’ privilege. The Circuit Court is expected to rule on the subpoena by the end of February.

The Sullivan Daily Times initially responded to the subpoena by publishing an edited version of the letter in its newspaper. When prosecutors insisted that they had to have the original letter, the Daily Times complied with the demand.

During the summer, Smith wrote letters to the Times and to Michelle Hudson, a reporter for the Tribune-Star. Both newspapers published articles based on information in the letters.

Hudson’s article quoted Smith as writing, “I’m hoping that they do file the death penalty on me to be honest. If they do, I will plead guilty and save the taxpayers a lot of money and there will be [no] appeal.”

At a hearing in mid-February, the Tribune-Star argued that it did not have to release the letters because the information was protected by a qualified reporters’ privilege grounded in the First Amendment. The newspaper argued that the prosecution had already acquired the information from the Daily Times and that, in any event, it should not be forced to become the investigative arm of the government.

The Tribune-Star conceded that the Indiana shield law, which protects against forced disclosure of confidential sources, did not apply. (Indiana v. Smith; Media Counsel: Robert Gowdy, Terre Haute)