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Newspaper invokes Montana shield law to avoid subpoenas

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The publisher and two editors of a Montana newspaper are relying on the state’s shield law to quash subpoenas for…

The publisher and two editors of a Montana newspaper are relying on the state’s shield law to quash subpoenas for their testimony in a change of venue hearing for a double homicide trial, said Pete Meloy, the newspaper’s attorney.

Lawyers for Justine Winter, the 17-year-old defendant accused of killing a mother and son when she drove her car over the center line of a Montana highway, have filed a motion for a change of venue, claiming that online comments and responses to the Daily Inter Lake’s coverage of the case have tainted the jury pool, he said.

Defense attorney David Stufft subpoenaed the newspaper staff, Meloy said, arguing that Managing Editor Frank Miele was a neighbor of the victims who was keeping the story at the forefront.

Stufft said he is also concerned that comments posted on the Inter Lake’s Web site would make it impossible for his client to have a fair trial in Flathead County. The posted comments primarily voiced a negative opinion of Winter.

“I am glad she survived and has the cognitive ability to understand what she did is evil and low. I hope she rots in jail for the rest of her life,” read one anonymous comment submitted Aug. 3.

Stufft subpoenaed seven internet commenters, whose names and contact information were provided to him by the newspaper, and the court heard their testimony during Wednesday’s hearing, the Inter Lake reported.

“I presume, that based on what [the defendants] put in their moving papers, that they wanted to try to convince the court, through the testimony of these folks, that [the Daily Inter Lake] engaged in some biased news coverage,” Meloy said.

Most of the outcry found in the hundreds of comment postings is in response to Winter’s decision to sue the victim’s estate and the construction company that built the overpass where the incident occurred. Winter has accused the victim of failing to control her car when Winter hit her head-on. The prosecution’s stance is that Winter crossed the center line in a botched suicide attempt, according to the Inter Lake.

While the Inter Lake filed a motion to quash the subpoenas for its staff, it agreed to hand over the identities of readers who had commented on the paper’s stories.

“I think the Inter Lake has a much, much stronger case to prevail on the motion to quash than to hide the identity of the commenters,” Meloy said. He said he is confident about relying on Montana’s shield law and said he had never lost a case in which it applied.

The shield law does not protect online commenters and the Inter Lake’s conditions of use do not mention users’ privacy. Users are informed, however, that only their chosen screen name will appear on their posts.

Daily Inter Lake Publisher Rick Weaver had no comment, and defense attorney David Stufft was unavailable Monday.