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Imprisoned blogger is freed in deal with federal prosecutor

Times Staff Writer

A videographer who spent 7 1/2 months in prison for refusing to turn over footage of a San Francisco street demonstration to a federal grand jury was released from custody Tuesday after striking a deal with prosecutors to publish his outtakes on the Web.

Under the agreement, Josh Wolf, 24, will not have to testify or identify people shown in the video. The U.S. attorney is investigating the wounding of a police officer, who was struck in the head with a pipe during the demonstration, as well as an alleged attempt to set fire to a police car. The video footage Wolf released Tuesday morning on his website, www.joshwolf.net, did not show either incident.

On Tuesday afternoon, Wolf was released after spending 226 days at the federal prison in Dublin, about 30 miles east of San Francisco. He served a longer term than any journalist in U.S. history has served for refusing to reveal unpublished material or sources.

“I feel really good, a bit overwhelmed,” he said in an interview via cellphone, as he drove to a news conference in San Francisco. “The pace of life is so slow in prison, I feel like a kid from the country coming to the city, even though I live here.”

All along Wolf had insisted that the video did not contain anything that would be relevant to the investigation, but he also said he had a constitutional right as a journalist not to cooperate with authorities and become “an arm of law enforcement.” Several media advocacy groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, supported his stance and called for his release. The U.S. attorney argued that Wolf was not a journalist and did not have that right.

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In November, with his appeals exhausted, Wolf agreed to release the video as long as he did not have to testify. But the U.S. attorney wanted his testimony, he said.

On Feb. 12, Wolf was interviewed by the syndicated left-of-center radio program Democracy Now and said he received hundreds of letters of support. The next day, U.S. District Judge William Alsup referred the case to a magistrate for mediation. On Monday, Wolf and the government came to the current agreement.

Wolf released the video and answered two questions under penalty of perjury. He was asked whether he saw anyone throw anything at a police car and whether he saw the person whom San Francisco Police Officer Peter Shields was trying to take into custody when he was struck in the head. Shields suffered a skull fracture. “My answer is no,” he replied to both.

In court papers, the U.S. attorney requested that Alsup release Wolf from confinement but said the government would not be precluded from issuing another grand jury subpoena to Wolf in the future.

Wolf continued to insist that he was acting as a journalist, not a participant, on July 8, 2005, when he set out to film the anarchist demonstration. “The purpose of me going out that night was to go out and document a protest that would be ignored by the establishment media,” he said.

Wolf’s incarceration came as a spate of journalists faced prison time for refusing to comply with jury subpoenas. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify in the CIA leak investigation. And two San Francisco Chronicle reporters were facing prison time for refusing to testify about who leaked confidential documents to them in the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative sports doping probe. The threat was dropped when a defense attorney admitted that he had been the source and pleaded guilty to contempt of court and obstruction of justice.

Although California has a shield law to protect journalists from testifying in state court, there is no such protection in federal court. The federal government prosecuted the Wolf case on the basis that the victim -- the San Francisco Police Department -- received federal funding.

Wolf said he kept his sense of humor in prison. He said that he gained muscle mass by working out with Barry Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson, who has been in prison on contempt of court charges for refusing to testify in the BALCO probe. “He had everyone working out.”

News media advocates hailed Wolf’s release. “I give him a lot of credit,” said Kelli Sager, a media attorney in Los Angeles. “Without the backing of a major news organization, he went to jail to stand up for a principle that should be important for all reporters.”

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com


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