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The incarceration of a writer in Houston because she won’t give federal prosecutors notes from her research of a 1997 murder troubles a former U.S. Attorney in Dallas. Paul Coggins, who served eight years as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, says Vanessa Leggett’s case raises not only First Amendment concerns but also questions whether law enforcement has stopped doing its job and is trying to use journalists’ research as “a shortcut.” On July 20, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon found Leggett in contempt and ordered her incarcerated after she refused to give her research notes to a federal grand jury investigating the April 1997 shooting death of Doris Angleton. The 46-year-old victim’s husband, Houston bookie and former law enforcement informant Robert Angleton, and his brother, Roger, were charged with capital murder in connection with her death. A 176th District Court jury in Houston acquitted Robert Angleton in 1998. Roger Angleton committed suicide in February 1998 while in the Harris County, Texas, Jail awaiting trial; he left a note and confessed to the murder and said he had tried to frame his brother, says Houston sole practitioner Michael Ramsey. Ramsey, who represents Robert Angleton, says federal authorities are trying to reprosecute his client for the murder. “I think it’s payback for Bob,” he says. Mike DeGeurin, Leggett’s attorney, says the grand jury looking into the murder subpoenaed his client and told her to bring all of her notes and taped interviews with confidential and nonconfidential sources who talked about the murder; that was information gathered for a book she’s writing. On July 25, DeGeurin appealed Leggett’s contempt citation to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If Leggett loses her appeal, she could be incarcerated for 18 months. Coggins says a provision in the U.S. Attorney’s Manual requires authorization by the nation’s attorney general to subpoena a reporter because it’s a case in federal court. “In our eight years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, we never subpoenaed a reporter or an author for [his or her] materials,” says Coggins, who moved to the private sector in February and is a partner in Dallas’ Fish & Richardson. Coggins says U.S. Attorneys face a “very high standard” when they subpoena journalists because they must show that they have no other way to get the material. While Coggins says he assumes U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft approved the subpoena, a July 27 report in USA Today indicates that Ashcroft did not give his approval. “They’re claiming she’s not a journalist because she’s never been published,” Ramsey says. John Lenoir, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman in Houston, says, “Our policy is to never confirm or deny or to comment on pending investigations.” Robert Latham, a partner in the Dallas office of Jackson Walker who handles media law, says Leggett doesn’t have to be on a newspaper’s staff to be a journalist. “The only facts that she knows are the results of her investigation; she’s undertaken that investigation as a journalist,” says Latham, who assisted with an amicus brief that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other news media groups filed with the 5th Circuit to support Leggett’s appeal. Latham says courts have held that books are protected by the First Amendment. As an example, he cites the 5th Circuit’s 1998 decision in Matthews v. Wozencraft. In that case, former undercover police officer Creig Matthews alleged that his ex-wife, Kim Wozencraft, misapplied his name and likeness in the book “Rush.” The court held that the novel fell within the protection of the First Amendment. Since books are protected, Latham questions why an author would not have First Amendment protection while gathering information for a book. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee, says the 5th Circuit has been narrowing the concept of reporter’s privilege. In 1998, in United States v. Smith, the 5th Circuit held that the First Amendment privilege protecting reporters does not extend to unpublished, nonconfidential sources. “A lot of reporters are worried that the 5th Circuit might use this case to end reporter’s privilege,” Leslie says. Media lawyer Paul Watler, a partner in Jenkens & Gilchrist in Dallas, says he believes what’s happening is an “indication of a continuing trend to compel journalists to disclose other source information or unpublished materials.” Latham says the brief urges the 5th Circuit to acknowledge and apply reporter’s privilege and to revisit the issue of privilege for nonconfidential sources. “If the 5th Circuit rules adversely to Leggett, it’s really going to be tougher on the press,” says John Edwards, the Jackson Walker associate who drafted the amicus brief. “Reporter’s privilege does not exist for the benefit of reporters,” Latham says. “It exists for the benefit of readers and the citizenship.” If reporters are forced to disclose their sources, stories of importance to the public will go untold, he says. Leggett teaches writing and homicide investigation at the University of Houston-Downtown and has been working on a book about the Angleton case for the past four years, DeGeurin says. One book, “Death in Texas,” by Carlton Smith, already has been published about the Angleton case, Ramsey says. Ramsey criticizes the secret way in which Leggett’s contempt hearing was held. “Not only are they locking up a journalist, they’re locking up a journalist secretly,” he says. “To me, the whole situation is repugnant.” Ramsey also cites coincidences in the reinvestigation of the murder that trouble him. Cynthia Rosenthal, the FBI agent on the case, is the wife of Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. Two Houston police detectives who investigated the case before Robert Angleton was tried in state court are on a Justice Department task force that is investigating the case again, Ramsey alleges. Cynthia Rosenthal did not return a phone call by press time on Aug. 2. All records of the proceeding have been sealed, because the hearing included information obtained through the grand jury, DeGeurin says. From a big-picture perspective, he says, the unusual aspect of Leggett’s case is the fact that a reporter has been intimidated and then eventually incarcerated for trying to stand on principle. DeGeurin says that once the government can subpoena reporters and just take the information they gather instead of doing its own investigations, the press becomes annexed to government. Notes DeGeurin, “The press should be the watchdog of the police, not their lap dog.”

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