A Kansas judge found a subpoenaed newspaper reporter in contempt and fined her $1,000 a day after she failed to show up to testify yesterday about a jailhouse interview and her confidential sources in a murder investigation.
District Judge Daniel Love ordered Dodge City Daily Globe reporter Claire O’Brien to appear tomorrow at a rescheduled inquisition ? the Kansas equivalent of a grand jury.
A distraught O’Brien told the Associated Press the newspaper’s owners made it “absolutely clear” that the publication would not pay for her legal help unless she testified.
She said the corporate lawyers also scuttled her attempts to get free legal assistance through the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“I feel profoundly betrayed. I have been prepared to take one of the most difficult steps a citizen can take and I haven’t been given the dignity of representation … to facilitate my choice,” O’Brien said. “I have been told that I have to betray my sources in order to get legal help.”
An executive with GateHouse Media Kansas Holdings, which owns the newspaper, denied O’Brien’s claims late yesterday, insisting the company did not try to force her to testify in exchange for legal help, and that the company actually encouraged the Reporters Committee to help O’Brien.
Earlier, the company issued a statement saying it had vigorously defended O’Brien’s legal interests from the start of inquisition proceedings through the Kansas Supreme Court’s “regrettable decision” not to toss out the subpoenas.
Stephen Wade, group publisher for GateHouse Media Kansas, also said the company had paid for an attorney who worked for O’Brien before the reporter fired the lawyer yesterday.
“Ms. O’Brien decided to pursue a different course of action this morning, so GateHouse’s involvement in the legal proceedings has ? by her choice ? ended,” the company said in the statement.
The inquisition already has been delayed numerous times while O’Brien and GateHouse Media appealed the subpoena on the grounds that forcing O’Brien to testify would violate her First Amendment rights and hurt her ability to gather news.
Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court denied the request to stop the subpoena.
Prosecutors want her notes from a jailhouse interview with a suspect in a shooting that left one man dead and another wounded. They also want to know the identity of confidential sources who alluded that the suspect might be in danger.
Ford County Attorney Terry Malone said yesterday he was frustrated that the reporter did not come to court. He said the judge fined O’Brien, not the newspaper, $1,000 for every day she was in contempt.
“We just need to get this over with and move on. I am disappointed we weren’t able to do that,” Malone said. “If she wants to refuse to answer that is her prerogative, she would probably be found in contempt of court, but that is the process that should be followed. Not showing up is not the way.”
The unexpected turn in the case dismayed officials at the Kansas Press Association, who have said O’Brien’s case illustrates the need for Kansas to join 35 other states in passing a shield law to protect reporters.
“We certainly believe the reporter has the right to protect her sources, but she could have done that by appearing in court and refusing to testify. Her decision not to appear is one that we can’t agree with,” said Doug Anstaett, KPA executive director.
“If we in the press appear to be totally defiant we run the risk of getting nowhere with the shield law,” Anstaett said.
The judge did not return a call from the AP seeking comment.
At the heart of the subpoena is 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 suggested that the incident had stirred up anti-Hispanic sentiment. It quoted Rebecca Escalante, the bails bondswoman who got O’Brien into the jail, as saying she would have bonded Bonilla out of jail by now if she were not concerned for his safety. It also cited confidential sources 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.
O’Brien has repeatedly insisted the victims’ friends and associates already are known to law enforcement. She maintains that no one will ever trust her if she reveals the identities of her sources.
“I feel the choice is a personal and private one and has to be driven by my own ethics in the end,” she said yesterday.