Reporter’s privilege upheld in murder trial
WEST VIRGINIA–Affirming that a qualified reporter’s privilege does exist in West Virginia, the state Supreme Court in mid-March overturned a Circuit Court judge’s decision ordering two newspapers to turn over unpublished photographs to a defendant on trial for murder.
The Supreme Court ruled that the defendant may obtain the photographs only if he proves to the Circuit Court the information contained in them would be highly material, relevant and critical to his defense, and unobtainable from other available sources. If such a showing is made by the defendant, the court will decide which, if any, of the photographs must be released after examining them in camera.
West Virginia does not have a shield law.
The Charleston Daily Mail and the Charleston Gazette were ordered in November 1996 to turn over photographs of a home destroyed in a suspected arson fire, which were taken in conjunction with the two papers’ coverage of the fire the previous year. Frank West, who is charged with first-degree murder and arson in connection with the fire, subpoenaed both newspapers, requesting “copies of any and all photos of the arson homicide at the dwelling in question.” He asserted that the photos may contain exculpatory evidence which he may or may not use at his criminal trial.
The Supreme Court held that the competing constitutional protections of press freedom and fair trial rights must be balanced before the media representatives are forced to provide the information gathered. (West Virginia ex rel. the Charleston Mail v. Ranson; Media Counsel: James Brown, Charleston)