Judge Drops Contempt Charge After Dodge City Reporter Testifies in Murder Inquisition

By: The Associated Press

A Kansas judge has rescinded a contempt citation and fine for a newspaper reporter after the journalist testified in a closed inquisition about her jailhouse interview with the suspect in a murder investigation.

Dodge City Daily Globe reporter Claire O’Brien had been fined $1,000 a day and held in contempt when she failed to appear on Feb. 10 for an inquisition, the Kansas equivalent of a grand jury.

Ford County Attorney Terry Malone told the Associated Press that at a second hearing Friday, O’Brien apologized to the judge for not showing up at the earlier hearing, indicating she needed advice from another attorney. District Judge Daniel Love accepted the apology.

A confidential source whose identity prosecutors had sought revealed himself to authorities on Feb. 11 after O’Brien was cited for contempt, Malone said. The source provided the information authorities sought and released O’Brien from her promise of confidentiality.

“He was moved by his own moral convictions ? the only thing that could have evoked those was me demonstrating my moral convictions to that extent … when he saw I was willing to pay the whole price,” O’Brien said.

Malone said the source could have made it much easier had he simply come forward several months ago.

“Hopefully it will show the Legislature how hopelessly tangled this situation can become without a clear statute showing the way,” O’Brien said after the hearing.

Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says his group has been approached by some legislators who want to help. He says KPA will be working with them in the coming weeks to make sure Kansas joins the 35 other states with a shield law to protect reporters.

“This episode has awakened members of the Kansas Legislature to the sad fact that reporters have no protection under state law,” Anstaett said in a phone interview. “Who is going to go out on a limb as a reporter if the courts and prosecutors are just going to be standing there with a chain saw to destroy the very tools a reporter uses to report the news?”

If reporters don’t have the ability to talk to people anonymously, valuable investigative reporting will go away, he said.

O’Brien’s attorney, Mark Johnson, declined to discuss the specifics of what was said at the closed hearing on Feb. 12.

The Kansas City attorney said he offered his services to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on the reporter’s behalf after hearing of the contempt order issued against her.

“No one should go into a situation like that unrepresented, not really understanding the process,” Johnson said.

Most of the Feb. 12 inquisition was spent dealing with questions about the jailhouse interview O’Brien had with a suspect in a double shooting that left one man dead, Malone said.

“We gained valuable information from her,” Malone said. “I thought it was a productive afternoon.”

O’Brien remains under subpoena to testify at the trial, but Malone says that will probably not be necessary unless her rebuttal testimony is needed.

At the heart of the subpoena was an Oct. 13 Daily Globe story based on O’Brien’s jailhouse interview with Sam Bonilla, who has been charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder in a Labor Day shooting in Dodge City.

Bonilla, who is Hispanic, reportedly told O’Brien that he acted in self-defense after the two victims, both white, tried to run him down while he was jogging with two children along the Arkansas River.

The story also cited a confidential source saying one of the shooting victims had a “base of support that is well-known for its anti-Hispanic beliefs” along with a supply of semiautomatic weapons.

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