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Federal appeals panel refuses to free jailed writer

By The Associated Press

08.20.01

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(Vanessa Leggett plans to ask the full 5th Circuit to review the three-judge panel's ruling against her, her attorney said Aug. 20.)

HOUSTON — A novice crime writer jailed for withholding notes from a grand jury investigating a 1997 murder will continue her fight despite a federal appeals court's refusal to free her, her lawyer said.

Vanessa Leggett, 33, has spent a month in jail for not handing over all of her research for a book about the shooting death of a Houston woman and ensuing jailhouse suicide of a suspect.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 17 that U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon didn't abuse her discretion "in ordering Leggett incarcerated for contempt."

"We'll have to make the decision whether to seek a rehearing by the entire Fifth Circuit or go directly to the Supreme Court," attorney Mike DeGeurin said after talking with his client late on Aug. 17. "I read her the opinion and of course we took issue with some of the findings."

Leggett was researching the death of Doris Angleton, who was found shot to death in her Houston home April 16, 1997. Her husband, Robert Angleton, and his brother, Roger, were charged with capital murder. Prosecutors alleged that Robert Angleton, a millionaire former bookie, hired his brother to kill his wife to prevent her from getting millions in a divorce settlement.

Roger Angleton spoke with Leggett before committing suicide in jail. He left behind notes confessing to the slaying, saying he planned the murder and framed his brother. Leggett has given investigators tapes of her interviews with him. Robert Angleton was acquitted.

Federal prosecutors contend Leggett is not a journalist and therefore does not fall under the First Amendment's protection of the press. Leggett has not published a book or news articles.

The appeals court ruling said Leggett was not entitled to First Amendment protection for refusing to hand over her notes: "Even assuming that Leggett, a virtually unpublished free-lance writer, operating without an employer or a contract for publication, qualifies as a journalist under the law, the journalist privilege is ineffectual against a grand jury subpoena, absent evidence of governmental harassment or oppression."

DeGeurin says the government is harassing Leggett through a subpoena requesting any and all copies and originals of her notes and interviews.

"This overly broad, I think oppressive, subpoena was a form of harassment and unnecessary," he said. "It was done with total disregard to the public and the First Amendment."

The appeals court opinion came two days after the case was argued before a three-judge panel. The order was not signed.

During oral arguments before the panel, an appeals judge expressed concern about the subpoena, but the court determined that: "While perhaps not as narrowly tailored as would be ideal, the subpoena directing Leggett to produce her tape recordings and interview notes is not so overly broad as to be oppressive."

The court also determined that Leggett's First Amendment protection arguments fell short.

"This court takes a narrow view of the journalist's privilege in criminal cases, particularly in grand jury proceedings," the opinion said.

Organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists have come out in support of Leggett, calling her incarceration a violation of her First Amendment rights. The Associated Press and other news organizations pushed successfully to have the hearing opened to the public.

Updates

Jailed writer says loss of freedom more real to her since Sept. 11 attacks
‘It is just something that I have been resolved to endure each day for as long as it takes,’ says Vanessa Leggett.  10.10.01

Jailing of writer taints U.S. reputation, says international press advocate
Vanessa Leggett, jailed for refusing to surrender her notes about a Houston society murder, has spent more time behind bars than any other journalist in the United States.  10.04.01

Previous

Jailed writer presents First Amendment argument to appeals panel
‘You're swimming upstream,’ 5th Circuit judge tells Vanessa Leggett’s defense attorney.  08.16.01

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The making of a First Amendment martyr
Ombudsman Journalist Vanessa Leggett sits in jail because she won’t become an investigative pawn of government.  08.22.01

Justice Department obtains reporter's home phone records
John Solomon’s May 4 story about Sen. Robert Torricelli may have prompted secret seizure of call records; press groups express outrage.  08.28.01

While at Justice, current FBI director approved subpoena for reporter's records
Sen. Charles Grassley sharply criticizes decision, saying such drastic action should be reserved for ‘an extreme case of national security.’  08.30.01

News groups fail to gain access to jurors
First Amendment experts say federal appeals panel’s ruling follows trend in 5th Circuit to restrict journalists’ newsgathering rights.  09.26.01

Radio talk-show host claims reporter's privilege in fighting subpoena
Prosecutor questions host's status as journalist, says court's interest in fair trial outweighs 'limited newsmen privilege.'  10.29.01

Senator shelves classified-leaks bill — for now
Although Richard Shelby says he’s confident Bush wouldn’t veto measure, he won't push to reschedule hearing before next year.  09.06.01

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