A Boone County Circuit Court judge has ordered the Columbia Daily Tribune to hand over hundreds of unpublished photos to attorneys on both sides of a wrongful death lawsuit involving a fallen Missouri football player.
Judge Gary Oxenhandler ruled on April 26 that the newspaper must disclose 604 unpublished photos to attorneys representing the family of former Missouri reserve linebacker Aaron O’Neal as well as 14 university employees named as defendants, including head coach Gary Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden and team medical director Rex Sharp.
The 19-year-old redshirt freshman collapsed on the field about 45 minutes into an hour-long, voluntary workout on July 12, 2005, and died later that afternoon. The Boone County medical examiner ruled that O’Neal died of viral meningitis, with swelling in his brain affecting his heart and causing him to lose his ability to breathe properly.
Tribune photographer Jenna Isaacson documented O’Neal’s collapse on Faurot Field at the preseason workout. Isaacson, who had agreed to testify about what she witnessed at the practice, is out of the country and could not be reached for comment. But attorney Jean Maneke, who represents the newspaper, said she was not certain the Tribune would appeal the ruling, citing concern that a higher court ruling could establish case law that would make it even harder for reporters to protect their work products in the future.
“An innocent photographer is now in the position of having to assist a private plaintiff trying to win a large sum of money from the university,” Maneke said. “They’re using our newspaper to make that happen.”
The Tribune has 10 business days to turn over the photos.
Attorneys for Lonnie O’Neal, the player’s father, sought the photos to bolster the case, arguing that the absence of a reporter’s shield law in Missouri means the paper had no legal basis for its refusal of a subpoena of Isaacson’s photos.
Oxenhandler agreed, citing case law that establishes a three-part standard for requiring the disclosure: the photos are relevant; necessary or critical to the defense; and all alternative sources to obtain the information detailed in those photos have been exhausted.
The judge added that “no hint of promise of confidentiality existed” between Isaacson and the university. He also noted that she discussed the workout in interviews with other journalists, including a news photography Web site.
The time-stamped photos “provide a literal photographic point of view that cannot be duplicated from any other source, known or unknown,” Oxenhandler concluded.
The workout was supervised by Sharp, other trainers and the team’s strength and conditioning coaches. The paper subsequently published 18 photos in print and on its Web site.
Under NCAA rules, Pinkel and his staff were not allowed to attend. The workouts are normally closed to the public and reporters, but the newspaper had previously arranged with the university for Isaacson and a second reporter to witness the session.
While the university was dropped as a named defendant in the suit, it is covering the legal expenses for the 14 employees. An attorney for those defendants joined the O’Neal family attorney at several hearings to show his support for obtaining the photos.
Maneke said the ruling shows the need for a shield law in Missouri, similar to the statutes found in 31 states and the District of Columbia.
A bill to grant reporters broader legal protections and limit the circumstances in which their testimony could be compelled was filed in Jefferson City earlier this year but has not moved forward.