Writer Vanessa Leggett was finally released on Jan. 4 after being held for five months in a federal detention center in Houston. She had been jailed for contempt of court after refusing to comply with a subpoena of her notes and other research for a high-profile murder case. Unfortunately, federal prosecutors will likely call her before another grand jury and attempt another subpoena of her research material. Leggett should not be forced to surrender her research because doing so would establish a precedent injurious to the institution of journalism.
Doris Angleton, wife of millionaire bookmaker Robert Angleton, was found shot to death in 1997. Investigators discovered $64,000 in cash and identified Robert and his brother Roger as suspects. The prosecution claimed that Robert had hired his brother to commit the murder in order to avoid a costly divorce settlement. Motivated by the hopes of publishing a true-crime book, Vanessa Leggett conducted numerous interviews with those associated with the case, including Roger Angleton. While awaiting trial, Roger Angleton committed suicide and left a note in which he confessed to committing the crime.
Prosecutors continued with the murder case against Robert Angleton and requested that Leggett turn over her notes regarding the interview with his brother. Despite Leggett”s compliance with the order, Robert Angleton was eventually acquitted of murder. Authorities then began an investigation into tax-evasion and money laundering and subpoenaed all of Leggett”s notes and research including all copies made on the murder. Leggett refused to obey and was consequently jailed.
Leggett should not have to comply with such a subpoena because it weakens the foundation of the institution of journalism. Sources have historically been an important aid for journalists trying to uncover the truth. Reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post was himself aided by a confidential source while uncovering the many layers of corruption in the Watergate scandal. Woodward”s mysterious “Deep Throat” would not have provided any information had there been any chance his identity could be revealed.
Leggett refused to cooperate because she felt it would violate the confidentiality of her sources. Leggett”s confidential sources gave her information with the understanding that their identity would not be revealed. This trust is one of the most fundamental aspects of journalism and should not be violated because it could discourage future sources from talking to journalists .
Forcing Leggett to surrender all of her notes violates this trust and sets in motion events that could establish a dangerous precedent. Should Leggett lose her appeal, the field of journalism would be severely handicapped. It would no longer have the aid of confidential sources in its struggle for the truth.