By Bastiaan Vanacker
On January 4, 2002, aspiring writer Vanessa Leggett was freed after serving 168 days in the Federal Detention Center in Houston, Texas. Leggett had been jailed on contempt charges for refusing to testify and hand over her research on a 1997 Houston murder case to a grand jury. She contended that doing so would have revealed the identity of some sources who talked to her on the condition of anonymity (see Fall 2001 Bulletin). Leggett was set free because the term of the grand jury had expired. Previous attempts by her attorney Mike DeGeurin to obtain her release on bond had been unsuccessful.
Leggett could be jailed again if prosecutors ask a new grand jury to issue a subpoena. But she may be spared if the United States Supreme Court decides to hear her case. On December 31, days before Leggett was released, DeGeurin asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held that no First Amendment privilege protects journalists from compelled testimony under these circumstances. DeGeurin argued that the decision in Branzburg v. Hayes (408 U.S. 665 (1972)) has been applied unevenly by federal district courts and needs to be clarified by the Supreme Court. In Branzburg, the high court stated that journalists are not immune from responding to a grand jury subpoena, but also left open the possibility of a constitutionally based privilege in other situations.
DeGeurin has argued that the Fifth Circuit interprets the reporter's privilege more narrowly than most other circuits. This means that the "public's freedom of the press is protected in various degrees depending upon which circuit you [sic] live in." DeGeurin's petition has asked the justices to clarify the scope of the reporter's privilege.
At the time of writing, the petition was still pending, but DeGeurin hopes that the Supreme Court will stay the enforcement of any future contempt order so that Leggett will not return to jail while in the interim. Media law experts, however, consider the chance of the high court expanding confidentiality standards to be remote.
Because the Fifth Circuit ruled that reporter's privilege did not apply in the case of grand jury subpoenas, Leggett's status as a journalist is a moot point. But if a reporter's privilege were to be recognized, the issue of whether Leggett qualifies as a reporter would become relevant again. The Justice Department did not seek the Attorney General's approval before subpoenaing Leggett, as is required under existing guidelines when a reporter is subpoenaed, because it did not consider Leggett to be a journalist.
A new grand jury, impaneled on January 8, returned an indictment against Robert Angleton, a principal suspect in the case Leggett was researching. Prosecutors did not say whether Leggett would be called to testify during the trial, but DeGeurin said he anticipates this may happen. If so, DeGeurin said that Leggett would continue to protect her sources.