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Newspaper receives subpoena for Web site reader surveys

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Newspaper receives subpoena for Web site reader surveys 11/03/97 CALIFORNIA--The Ventura County Star of Ventura, Calif. is fighting a subpoena…

Newspaper receives subpoena for Web site reader surveys

11/03/97

CALIFORNIA–The Ventura County Star of Ventura, Calif. is fighting a subpoena served on it in mid-October by a defendant who stands accused of a crime with occult overtones. James Farley, attorney for defendant Michael Dally, served a subpoena on the Star seeking unpublished responses to a survey the newspaper conducted on its Web site.

Dally has been charged with conspiring with his alleged lover, Diana Haun, to kill his wife, Sherri. Prosecutors in Haun’s trial alleged that the crime was intended as both a human sacrifice and a birthday present for Michael Dally. Haun was convicted of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in late September in state district court in Ventura and is currently awaiting sentencing.

The subpoena seeks unpublished e-mail from people who participated in a survey about the crime conducted by the Star on its Web site. It also seeks demographic information about participants.

In the survey, readers were asked whether they thought Haun was innocent or guilty. Out of the 280 responses received by the newspaper, 90 percent voted to convict her.

According to editor Timothy Gallagher, the Star intends to fight the subpoena.

“I don’t have a problem providing information to defense attorneys that has already appeared in the newspaper or in this case online,” Gallagher told The Associated Press, “but beyond that, there’s a privileged relationship between newspapers and readers.”

On October 20, attorneys for the newspaper filed an objection to the subpoena in state Superior Court in Ventura, Calif. If Dally and his attorney still wish to obtain the material demanded in the subpoena, they must file a motion to compel the paper to comply.

In its objection, the newspaper called the subpoena over-broad and unduly burdensome and suggested that the e-mail sought by the subpoena was irrelevant to the defendant’s case. The paper also asserted the protection of California’s shield law, which protects journalists from subpoenas seeking “any unpublished information obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing of information for communication to the public.”

Though the Star primarily serves readers within its circulation area in Ventura County, its Web site may be accessed from a much broader area. Len Newcomb, an investigator for Farley, told the AP that the report on the newspaper’s Web site might have influenced residents of Santa Barbara County. Although the trial itself will take place in the same Ventura County court where Haun was tried, potential jurors will be bused in from Santa Barbara County.

Megan Gray, one of the Star’s attorneys, described the subpoena as “a last-ditch effort” to show that jurors from Santa Barbara would already have their minds made up before hearing the evidence in Dally’s trial.

“In the Haun trial, the court agreed to bring in jurors from Santa Barbara rather than use jurors from Ventura,” she said. “But Haun got convicted. So now they want to get jurors from somewhere else for the next trial.”

Dally’s defense team has filed more than 50 subpoenas on news organizations throughout southern California demanding unpublished material related to the Haun trial. (California v. Dally; Media Counsel: Megan Gray, Los Angeles)