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Witness subpoena bars reporter from covering trial

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Witness subpoena bars reporter from covering trial 03/10/97 INDIANA--In early March, the state Supreme Court in Indianapolis denied a reporter's…

Witness subpoena bars reporter from covering trial

03/10/97

INDIANA–In early March, the state Supreme Court in Indianapolis denied a reporter’s request to quash a subpoena demanding her testimony in a criminal trial. Because the reporter was subpoenaed as a potential witness, the lower court also barred her from covering the trial.

Jennifer LaBalme, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News, had been covering a criminal case in which two parents were charged with neglect arising from their son’s death from pneumococcal meningitis. Over several months, LaBalme wrote numerous stories containing direct quotations from the defendants. Prior to the commencement of the trial in the Circuit Court in Anderson, LaBalme was subpoenaed by the Madison County prosecutor’s office to verify quotations from interviews with the defendants.

In late January, LaBalme filed a motion to quash the subpoena, claiming a qualified privilege under the First Amendment protected her from compelled disclosure of information obtained during newsgathering. LaBalme did not rely on the Indiana shield law, which protects primarily confidential sources.

In mid-February, pending the hearing on the motion to quash the subpoena, the trial court granted the prosecutor’s request for a “separation” order, which barred LaBalme from attending the criminal trial because she was expected to be called to testify. The court also denied LaBalme’s subsequent motion to stay the separation order. LaBalme’s attorney noted that Deputy Prosecutor Cynthia Sauer had “expressed her displeasure” over LaBalme’s news reporting of the criminal trial.

Although the high court did not rule in her favor, the majority commented that the trial court’s decision to allow a separation order was not appropriate. The court, however, said that review of the propriety of the order was not timely. Based on the decision, LaBalme asked the lower court to waive the separation order for the rest of the trial.

LaBalme was called to testify the day after the Supreme Court refused to quash the subpoena. (Indiana on rel. LaBalme v. Madison Circuit Court; Media Counsel: Jan Carroll, Indianapolis)