Seattle Judge Bars Chicago Cops from Reporter’s Notes

By: E&P Staff

Relying on case law from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal judge in Seattle has ruled that Western Washington University assistant professor of journalism Carolyn Nielsen does not have to turn over her notes to police officers accused of framing a man in a 1993 crime, and that those officers must pay her attorneys fees.

Nielsen’s reporting while a graduate student at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism helped free a man who had been convicted of murder. Thaddeus Jimenez, 14 when he was convicted, sued the Chicago Police Department for false arrest. He spent 16 years in prison before his exoneration last year. His lawyers’ interest in the case was based Nielsen’s reporting.

Attorneys for some officers named in the lawsuit subpoenaed materials Nielsen gathered while reporting on the story. They learned of the materials after Nielsen mentioned she still had her notes and correspondence from the case when she celebrated Jimenez’s release on her blog.

The police officers’ lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman to rule according to precedent from the U.S. Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, according to an Aug. 23 account by Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter, who noted the Seventh Circuit recognizes no federal protection of a journalists’ work.

The Ninth Circuit affords protection to the extent that all efforts to obtain the information elsewhere have been exhausted. Pechman suggested the officers should have made those other efforts, including deposing Nielsen. Carter reported that the judge said the officers also failed to show the information they wanted was even relevant to the case.

Pechman quashed the subpoena and issued a protective order preventing the officers’ attorneys from asking for information from Nielsen, who said she would not provide the documents to Jimenez’s attorneys, either.

“Nielsen has letters from Jimenez that nobody else has seen, and may contain inculpatory evidence,” Andrew Hale, the officers’ Chicago attorney told Carter. “Now the judge has not only said we can’t have them, but we can’t talk to Nielsen about them. It doesn’t make sense.” He is considering an appeal.

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