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Quashed reporters' subpoenas leads to overturning of murder conviction

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Quashed reporters' subpoenas leads to overturning of murder conviction 05/19/97 TEXAS--The state's highest criminal court in late April ruled that…

Quashed reporters’ subpoenas leads to overturning of murder conviction

05/19/97

TEXAS–The state’s highest criminal court in late April ruled that a trial court violated the defendant’s fair trial rights when it quashed subpoenas he served on two Dallas Morning News reporters.

The divided court, upholding the January 1996 decision of an intermediate appellate court in Waco reversing Lawron Coleman’s murder conviction, ruled 5-3 that the reporters should have been required to present proof that their testimony was not material or relevant to the case. Texas has no shield law.

The majority held that the defendant’s “properly requested, issued, and served subpoenas” constituted a sufficient initial showing that the evidence requested would be material to the defense. Once that showing is made, the burden shifts to the reporters to prove that their evidence would not be material or relevant, the court held. In this case, the trial court improperly required the defendant to demonstrate that his need for the reporters’ testimony overcame their qualified privilege not to testify, according to the high court.

The dissenting justices said in two separate opinions that a defendant must be required to show that evidence subpoenaed is material and favorable to his defense, and noted that the application for subpoena, which simply states that the information is material, is insufficient.

The defendant had subpoenaed the two Morning News reporters to testify at his trial concerning their series of articles on gang violence published in January 1994, just before his trial on charges of murder stemming from a drive-by shooting in which he was involved. The trial court quashed the subpoenas, ruling that Coleman had failed to prove that any information the reporters had was highly relevant, necessary to his defense, and unobtainable from other sources.

Coleman argued that even though the reporters had no direct knowledge of the crime, their investigative work could provide impressions of the “atmosphere” surrounding the incident, which could relate to Coleman’s state of mind, a theory critical to his defense. (Coleman v. Texas)