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State high court stays jailing of reporter

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
State high court stays jailing of reporter07/03/95 SOUTH CAROLINA--In mid-June, the Supreme Court in Columbia stayed a trial judge's order…


SOUTH CAROLINA–In mid-June, the Supreme Court in Columbia stayed a trial judge’s order that would have sent a reporter to jail for refusing to reveal the source of a leaked mental competency report concerning murder defendant Susan Smith.

In early June, Circuit Judge William Howard of Union ordered reporter Twila Decker of The (Columbia) State to reveal her confidential source or report to jail on June 16th. Howard was seeking the identity of the source in an effort to determine if his earlier secrecy order had been violated. Neither the prosecution nor the defense had asked the court to compel Decker to reveal her source.

The Supreme Court stayed Howard’s incarceration order pending its resolution of Decker’s appeal. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in early July.

In late May, Howard found Decker in contempt of court after she refused to reveal who told her that a sealed psychiatric report by doctors at the state’s Mental Health Department found Smith competent to stand trial. Decker claimed that she was protected from forced disclosure of her confidential sources by the First Amendment and the South Carolina Shield Law.

In the highly-publicized case, Smith is charged with two counts of murder for the drowning deaths of her two sons, age 14 months and 3 years. The case generated nationwide publicity after Smith claimed that a carjacker abducted her sons. Smith could receive the death penalty if convicted of the murders.

Decker’s appeal of the incarceration order will be handled by the Supreme Court on an expedited basis. Initial filings by Decker in the Supreme Court are due in late June. (South Carolina v. Smith; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Columbia)

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.