A reporter ignored promises he made to a source and turned over audio recordings of an interview that lead to the dismissal of all charges against a former FBI supervisor accused of assisting the mob in committing four murders.
On Tuesday, Village Voice reporter Tom Robbins wrote on the paper’s Web site that he had recordings of interviews with key prosecution witness Linda Schiro that directly contradicted the testimony she offered during the trial against Lindley DeVecchio. Robbins conducted the interviews in 1997 while researching a never-published book about the case.
By the end of the day, both the defense and prosecution subpoenaed the tapes of the interviews. It may have been the second time the parties tried to get the tapes; Justice Gustin L. Reichbach previously quashed a subpoena served on the would be co-author of the book, Jerry Capeci.
But Robbins showed up to court on Wednesday, tapes in hand, despite a bevy of promises to Schiro that he would protect her identity and the contents of their interview. In his article, Robbins explained:
“The ground rules when we spoke to Schiro in 1997 were that the information she provided would only be used in a book – not in news articles. She also exacted a pledge that we would not attribute information directly to her. And in a cautious but not unreasonable demand for a woman who spent her life married to the mob, she required a promise – however difficult to enforce – that we not cooperate in any law-enforcement inquiries stemming from said book’s publication.”
After listening to the tapes outside of court, prosecutors decided to drop all charges against DeVecchio, who faced life in prison if convicted. Robbins explained DeVecchio’s potential fate played a major role in his decision to break his agreement with Schiro.
“Those are the kind of high stakes that take precedence over contracts and vows of confidence, no matter how important they may be to the business of reporting, and regardless of how distasteful it may be to violate them. The threat of a life sentence trumps a promise.”
By saving DeVecchio, Robbins may have opened himself up to a host of problems beyond the inability to ever convince a source to trust him with sensitive information again: Schiro could target Robbins with private litigation for breaking his promises to her.
Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Cohen v. Cowles Media, journalists must keep the promises they make to sources, including, notably, promises on confidentiality. As a result, for his efforts, Robbins could find himself on the losing end of a breach of contract claim from Schiro.