TEXAS — The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, in mid-April held that journalists have no constitutional privilege to withhold evidence relevant to a criminal prosecution.
By a 5-4 vote, the Court of Criminal Appeals said that a County Court at Law judge in Richmond must vacate an order that quashed a subpoena issued to four television journalists.
In 1992 a funeral home operator, following a dispute over cremation fees with the deceased’s son, returned the partially embalmed body to the deceased’s apartment, the Associated Press reported.
The funeral home operator was charged with “abuse of a corpse,” a misdemeanor. In June 1993 the district attorney of Fort Bend County subpoenaed tapes and testimony from journalists at three Houston television stations, KTRK, KHOU and KRIV, which had aired reports about the case.
In July 1993 the county court quashed the subpoenas on the grounds that the journalists had a qualified constitutional privilege not to provide evidence unless the state could demonstrate a compelling need. Texas has no shield law.
The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that although the state was not entitled to a normal appeal, the appeals court could nevertheless order the trial court to vacate its order because the recognition of a journalist’s privilege in a criminal case is “clearly contrary to well-settled law.”
The dissenters maintained that the Court of Criminal Appeals should not have considered the case because the state was not entitled to appellate review.
Charles Babcock, one of the attorneys for the journalists, said he intends to ask the Court of Criminal Appeals for a rehearing.
(State v. McMeans; Media Counsel: Charles Babcock, Houston)
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.