Lawyers for a writer who has been jailed here for nearly a month argued in federal court Wednesday that she should not be compelled to hand over interviews she conducted for possible use in a crime book.
"There has to be some balancing between law enforcement and the public's right to a free and independent press," said defense attorney Mike DeGuerin in arguing the 1st Amendment rights of Vanessa Leggett. Leggett, 33, was jailed July 20 on contempt charges after she refused to turn over four years' worth of research to a federal grand jury.
Federal prosecutor Paula Offenhauser countered that the grand jury has a right to all information, and that prosecutors do not question the motives of a grand jury as long as it produces relevant evidence. "The function of a grand jury is to investigate," she said.
Until last month, Leggett was a part-time teacher and a struggling writer. Hoping for an eventual book deal, she spent years researching the 1997 murder of Doris Angleton, who was found shot to death at her home in one of Houston's most exclusive neighborhoods.
Prosecutors said that Robert Angleton hired his brother Roger to kill his estranged wife before she collected a large divorce settlement. Roger Angleton committed suicide before his trial, leaving notes saying that he masterminded the murder to extort money from his rich brother. Leggett conducted hours of interviews with Roger Angleton before his death.
Leggett had turned over copies of the taped interviews to authorities but was later subpoenaed for all of her notes and documents.
DeGuerin argued Wednesday that the subpoena was excessively broad and unreasonable. The government "doesn't know what they're looking for," he said. Offenhauser admitted that "it's true, we don't know exactly" what is in Leggett's notes. But that does not free her of her duty to produce them, the prosecutor said. Judge Edith H. Jones said the subpoena's broad request for all copies and originals concerned her.
Part of the case turns on the definition of a journalist. With no published works, Leggett has been vulnerable to suggestions that she is not protected by laws that can shield reporters from judicial inquiry.
That reasoning is nonsense, said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), who attended Wednesday's hearing. "Her intent was to gather information to produce a book," Jackson-Lee said. "I believe that classifies her as a journalist."
The Houston congresswoman said she is asking Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to look into the Leggett case. "She is not being treated as a journalist," Lee said.
The three-member 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that heard the oral arguments voiced skepticism Wednesday about Leggett's 1st Amendment claims, when compared with the grand jury's right to information.
Leggett has said that turning over her research would compromise confidential sources and cripple her ability to complete her book. "The government wants a monopoly on information, and I think I'm, in their eyes, in violation of possessing information with the intent to distribute it to the public," Leggett said in an interview with Associated Press. She did not appear in court for the hearing Wednesday.