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True-crime author prevented from interviewing prisoner

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    News Media Update         TEXAS         Newsgathering    

True-crime author prevented from interviewing prisoner

  • The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says New York Times best-selling author Suzy Spencer isn’t allowed to interview prisoners, and that a new policy bars all book authors from seeking inmate interviews.

Dec. 10, 2003 — True-crime author Suzy Spencer has been locked out of the Gatesville Unit prison, preventing her from interviewing a convicted murderer for a book to be published by St. Martin’s Press.

Spencer, whose 1999 book “Wasted” was a New York Times best-seller, was told by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice late last month that its new media guidelines prohibit interviews between inmates and book authors. Newspaper, magazine and TV reporters were still allowed access to prisoners, a public information officer said. However, book authors — no matter their experience or ability to show evidence of a contract with a publisher — were prohibited.

“So news media is defined with daily, weekly or monthly deadlines,” Spencer says. “That’s ridiculous! I don’t know if it’s laziness, cutbacks — as they say — or they’re leery of the press.

“What is the TDC afraid of?” she says. “What are they afraid I’ll expose?”

Spencer is looking to interview Tracey Tarlton, who is serving a 20-year sentence for the 1999 murder of former television executive and millionaire Steven Beard Jr. Tarlton accepted a plea deal to testify against Beard’s wife, Celeste Beard Johnson, whom she had an alleged affair with. The two women met at a psychiatric hospital in Austin.

Johnson was later found guilty of capital murder and is currently serving a double life sentence.

Spencer says her requests for a copy of the new media regulations have gone unanswered. The most recent regulations available make no mention of a prohibition against book authors.

In an e-mail message to Spencer from Michelle Lyons, public information officer at the TDCJ, Lyons said the department no longer processes interview requests from book authors because of the difficulty in verifying their credentials, a lack of staff to monitor the visitation area, and the authors’ desire to spend more than the one-hour allotment for media interviews. Spencer had previously interviewed Tarlton at the Sycamore Unit prison, also located in Gatesville.

Since the snub, Spencer has embarked on an e-mail campaign to bring attention to the alleged regulation, which she says is an infringement upon her First Amendment rights. Spencer has written to state Rep. Todd Baxter, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and a reporter at the Austin Chronicle, for which she has written numerous book reviews. The Chronicle published a short article about Spencer and the TDCJ’s policy Nov. 26.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is in the process of sending a letter to TDCJ General Counsel Carl Reynolds in objection to the policy.

In 2000, Spencer wrote “Breaking Point,” the story of Andrea Yates, who was charged at the time with drowning her five children. Yates was later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. St. Martin’s Press published that book, and signed Spencer to a contract in May 2003 to write about the Beard murder.

St. Martin’s did not return phone calls seeking comment, and Spencer says the company has yet to get actively involved in her battle for access.

Others, however, have publicly taken great offense at the TDCJ’s new policy.

“We support the right of book authors and support access to those in the publishing field,” says Cathy Stucker, president of the Association of Authors and Publishers, which is based in Houston. “Whether it’s a journalist or a book author, we’re for equal access for those looking for the truth.”

JL


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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