A Northern California newspaper publisher will go to jail Saturday for refusing to reveal the identity of confidential law enforcement sources unless a federal appeals court intervenes, a judge ruled Thursday.
Tim Crews, publisher, editor and chief reporter and photographer for the twice-a-week Sacramento Valley Mirror, failed to persuade the California Supreme Court and a federal trial judge this week to review his five-day jail sentence.
Tehama County Superior Court Judge Noel Watkins on Thursday ordered Crews to report to the county jail Saturday and described him as “obstinate and wrongheaded” for refusing to reveal sources he cited in a story last June.
Crews, who has asked the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene today, said he will go to jail rather than betray his sources. If he revealed them, he said, he would no longer have any sources.
“This is something honorable reporters have to do if we are going to have any credibility at all,” said the 57-year-old publisher.
Supporters of the 1st Amendment have strongly criticized the state Supreme Court for refusing to review Crews’ case, and have complained that more and more courts will now demand that reporters turn over notes or disclose sources to defense attorneys.
The case came before the justices only a few months after the court delivered a strong ruling in favor of press freedom. In a November decision, the court unanimously decided that the state’s shield law, which is supposed to protect reporters who refuse to reveal sources or produce unpublished information, prevents prosecutors from compelling such disclosures.
But in Crews’ case, a defendant, not a prosecutor, is asking for the identities of the confidential sources. The state high court ruled in 1990 that some criminal defendants can compel disclosure of unpublished notes if they can show that it will help their case.
Both a state Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court have refused to review Crews’ case. Only Justice Stanley Mosk voted in favor of examining the issues.
In readying himself for jail, Crews said, “It is obvious the shield is shattered. The only real shield is our ability to stand by what we say.”
Crews’ trouble stems from a story he wrote in June. He reported that law enforcement sources had told him five years earlier that authorities were aware that defendant Dewey Anderson had taken a handgun from a law enforcement drug unit in which he worked.
After leaving the drug unit, Anderson went on to become a California Highway Patrol officer and an undersheriff. Crews decided to publish his sources’ revelations after the gun turned up at a local high school and Anderson was charged with its theft. A friend of Anderson’s son had taken it to the school.
Anderson’s defense lawyer says Crews must reveal his sources because if officials knew about the theft allegation years ago, the statute of limitations has expired.
Lawyers for the newspaper argue that the case presents a new question for courts. Previous cases have dealt with unpublished information, not confidential sources, they say.
Thomas R. Burke, a San Francisco media lawyer who is working without pay for the 2,600-circulation newspaper, said Crews has been dogged in uncovering wrongdoing in Glenn and Tehama counties.
“He is an aggressive reporter and they want his hide,” said Burke. He added that the defense can prove its case without Crews’ sources.
“If they silence Tim Crews, they will silence the Valley Mirror,” Burke said.
Crews said the media lawyers representing him are working either without pay or on the promise they will eventually get paid at reduced rates. He added that the legal costs already have reached $50,000, and the “phone bill jump alone is enough to make me wince.”
He said he was thankful that many in the news media, including the Los Angeles Times, have supported him in friend-of-the-court briefs.
“We can’t help wonder if we might have [prevailed] if we were a bigger newspaper,” he said.