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San Jose newspaper sues over grand jury secrecy threats

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San Jose newspaper sues over grand jury secrecy threats

  • A prosecutor and grand jury foreman allegedly threatened to jail witnesses who spoke to members of the media about the investigation.

Sep. 23, 2003 — The San Jose Mercury News has sued the Santa Clara County district attorney and grand jury for allegedly threatening to jail witnesses who speak to the press in connection with the grand jury’s investigation of a local judge.

The threat of jail time “violated witnesses’ First Amendment right to talk to whom they want,” the Mercury News said in an editorial last week. “It also obstructed the newspaper’s ability to report the news. Most of all, their actions keep [the public] from knowing how well the courts function.”

According to a Sept. 16 article by Mercury News reporter Dan Reed, prosecutor William Larsen approached Mercury News reporter Elise Banducci during an interview with a grand jury witness and “asked whether her editor had given her the message that witnesses who talk to her ‘will be thrown in jail.’ ” Although Larsen did not address his comment directly to the witness — which arguably would violate California law — he reportedly made the remark within earshot of the witness.

In addition, Reed told News Media Update, on several occasions witnesses initially agreed to speak to the Mercury News, only to change their minds after being warned by the grand jury foreman that they could face criminal charges if they talked to the press.

The case arises from the grand jury’s investigation of Superior Court Judge William Danser, who has been accused of doling out favors from the bench. Danser was indicted yesterday on conspiracy and misdemeanor charges, the Mercury News reported.

The newspaper seeks an order barring prosecutors and the grand jury from telling witnesses not to speak to the media. It also wants the district attorney’s office and grand jury to call the witnesses who were already warned, and reassure them that they may speak to reporters if they choose.

A hearing date has yet to be scheduled in the case, according to the clerk’s office.

(San Jose Mercury News, Inc. v. George Kennedy; Media Counsel: Edward P. Davis, Gray Carey Ware & Freidenrich, Palo Alto, Calif.) JM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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