Thursday, July 07, 2005

SHIELDING REPORTERS

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown has a good piece about reporters and anonymous sources relevant to the Judith Miller case -- and, by extension, the Wen Ho Four (see my column immediately below.)

Like Brown, I have off-the-record/don't-use-my-name conversations practically every day, though I've never been jailed for protecting a source. The closest I came was a couple of years ago at a trial that resulted from a lengthy murder investigation I'd covered for about 10 years.

This was "The Rosebush Case," in which a human skeleton had been unearthed from the back yard of an east-side Santa Fe home when the homeowner was transplanting a rosebush. DNA eventually linked the remains to a former owner of the house.

For more than a year before the trial, I had been in e-mail contact with a former employee of the suspect's. I never wrote anything based on those e-mails. At that point the suspect, an Oklahoma man, hadn't even been charged. My correspondence was all just for background.

Eventually the former employee went to the police with her story. In the interviews, she mentioned her e-mails to me. When her former boss went to trial, the defense attorney claimed that I had tried to "program" the witness (I can barely program a VCR!) to believe her former boss was guilty of the murder.

The defense attorney wanted copies of all our e-mail. I refused to give it to him. I got subpoenaed as a witness and thus not allowed into the courtroom for a day or so, before The New Mexican's lawyer got it quashed.

There was a hearing before Judge Michael Vigil on whether I should be forced to give up my e-mails to the defense. Driving to the courthouse that morning, I didn't know whether I'd be spending the night -- or the next several nights -- in the Wen Ho Lee suite of the Santa Fe County Detention Center. I called my ex-wife's voice mail and left a message saying I might not be able pick up our son that weekend.

This of course wasn't the matter of giving up a source's identity. She had already identified herself and in fact had handed over copies of some of our e-mail. Still, I had promised to keep our correspondence confidential and I intended to keep that promise. Our lawyer came up with a compromise, to let Judge Vigil read the e-mails "in camera" and decided whether they should be admitted as evidence.

Vigil agreed and ruled later that day the e-mails were protected under New Mexico's shield law and wouldn't be allowed into the trial.

I got to see my son that weekend. And even without my e-mails, the defense attorney was able to get his client a not-guilty verdict.

Here's an Associated Press account my little ordeal. And here's something extremely weird about the Rosebush case.

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