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Jailed Texas writer asks Supreme Court to hear case

By The Associated Press

01.03.02

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Vanessa Leggett

WASHINGTON — A novice crime writer jailed since July for withholding notes from a grand jury turned to the Supreme Court yesterday in her bid for freedom.

Vanessa Leggett wants the court to use her case to give writers and reporters more rights to protect the confidentiality of their sources.

Leggett, 33, was imprisoned after she refused to hand over notes and recordings to a federal grand jury investigating Robert Angleton, a Houston bookmaker whose wife, Doris, was slain in 1997.

Disclosing the information would have broken a confidentiality promise she made with those she interviewed over a four-year span while doing research for a book, she has said.

An appeals court has already said a judge acted properly in jailing her for contempt of court. Leggett asked the Supreme Court this week to overturn the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision. In his request yesterday for the Supreme Court to review the case, Mike DeGeurin, Leggett's attorney, questioned whether the 5th Circuit erred by ruling Leggett was not protected by First Amendment privileges for journalists.

"Courts have repeatedly acknowledged the chilling effect and resulting self-censorship that discovery of a journalist's unpublished information can have on the gathering and reporting of news," the appeal said. "What the courts are ultimately protecting, when acknowledging a journalist's qualified privilege, is the public's 'right to know.'"

DeGeurin said that the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Branzburg v. Hayes in which the justices upheld First Amendment protections for newsgathering has been implemented unequally by the federal circuit courts and should be reviewed by the high court.

"There is a great division amongst the circuits as to how the news gatherer's qualified First Amendment privilege is applied in criminal cases," the appeal said, noting that the 5th Circuit has taken a narrow view of the privilege, while other circuits have applied a broader approach.

"Whether the privilege should be 'broad' ... or whether it should be replaced by the limited criteria imposed by the 5th Circuit is a key question that should be addressed and given clarification by this court," DeGeurin told the justices.

In a second argument, DeGeurin suggested the 5th Circuit, ruling in Leggett's case, conflicted with Supreme Court rulings regarding Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

Leggett had reasonable cause to fear prosecution since interviews she conducted may have been illegal because they were taped surreptitiously and by surrendering the tapes she could provide "the 'missing link' that could lead to an indictment," DeGeurin wrote. He also argued that an immunity agreement from federal prosecutors, accepted by the 5th Circuit and the federal district court, was inadequate to keep Leggett from possible state prosecution.

DeGeurin said yesterday that there was no timetable for the justices to act on the appeal.

"The one thing you can count on from the Supreme Court is that they do things in a reasoned manner," he said.

Leggett has been in a Houston federal detention center since July 20 for turning down the grand jury's request for all her records. The grand jury is expected to end its investigation tomorrow, but prosecutors have said they will oppose bail for Leggett until she complies with the subpoena.

Also pending before a federal district court in Houston is a request that Leggett be released from jail and the contempt order be vacated tomorrow when the federal grand jury completes its term. DeGeurin said that even if Leggett is freed this week, a Supreme Court decision would affect future efforts to jail her over the records.

The grand jury has been extended twice so far over six months, which DeGeurin insists is the legal limit.

"The law seems quite clear that unless they break some new legal ground that I'm not aware of, they must release her on Friday," he said.

The lawyer said he has requested a hearing on the matter but was not aware of one scheduled.

"This case has the potential to impact every journalist working in the United States," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Dalglish said although Leggett is not a traditional reporter, news organizations should support her because "we're all stuck with whatever comes out of the case."

Stephen Wermiel, a media law professor at American University, said Leggett has a long-shot chance of persuading the Supreme Court to relax confidentiality standards for journalists.

"The court has said pretty clearly over and over again there is no absolute privilege on the part of reporters to protect sources," Wermiel said. "It's one the media establishment doesn't like and continues to fight, but I don't see any reason to think the Supreme Court is ready to change the law on this."

Leggett's research involves Doris Angleton, who was shot a dozen times in her home in an exclusive Houston area in 1997. Robert Angleton, a former millionaire bookie, was acquitted in 1998 of state charges in his wife's death.

Updates

Supreme Court turns away jailed writer's appeal
Vanessa Leggett had asked justices to use her case to give writers, reporters more rights to protect the confidentiality of their sources.  04.15.02

Texas writer set free
But U.S. Attorney's office spokeswoman refuses to say if government will continue to pursue Vanessa Leggett's notes.  01.04.02

Previous

Jailed writer's attorney to seek Supreme Court review of case
Full 5th Circuit has refused to re-examine three-judge panel's decision upholding contempt ruling against Vanessa Leggett.  11.16.01

Related

Congresswoman urges Ashcroft to free jailed writer
Houston Democrat says Vanessa Leggett's 'only "crime" was to protect her confidential sources in keeping with the traditional constitutional notions of a free press.'  11.26.01

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