Papers appeal order to turn over arson photos
WEST VIRGINIA–Two Charleston newspapers petitioned the West Virginia Supreme Court in mid-November to prevent a Circuit Court judge from enforcing a subpoena ordering the papers to turn over photographs to a defendant on trial for murder.
The Charleston Daily Mail and The Charleston Gazette filed the joint petition November 12, asserting a qualified reporter’s privilege against compelled disclosure under the First Amendment. The newspapers also claimed they were protected by a reporter’s privilege under the West Virginia Constitution. West Virginia does not have a shield law.
In early November, the newspapers were ordered by Circuit Court Judge Lyne Ranson in Charleston to turn over photographs of a home destroyed in a suspected arson fire, which were published in both papers in October 1995. The defendant, Frank West, is charged with first-degree murder and arson in connection with the blaze, which killed one man. West’s trial is scheduled to start in early December.
West subpoenaed both the Daily Mail and Gazette, requesting “copies of any and all photos of the arson homicide at the dwelling in question.” Both papers filed motions to quash the subpoenas based on the qualified reporter’s privilege.
Additionally, both papers submitted the photographs to Ranson for in camera review and requested that they be sealed. The court denied both newspapers’ motions to quash the subpoenas and ordered them to comply.
In their petition to the West Virginia Supreme Court, the newspapers argued that the court should compel the Circuit Court to show why the qualified reporter’s privilege does not preclude compelled disclosure of the photographs, and any testimony relating to information gained from the newsgathering activities in connection with the arson-murder stories published in both papers. (The Charleston Mail Assoc. and The Daily Gazette Co. v. Ranson; Media Counsel: James Brown, Sean McGinley, Charleston)