The Vanessa Leggett Saga

By Garcia, Guillermo X. | American Journalism Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Vanessa Leggett Saga

Garcia, Guillermo X., American Journalism Review

An aspiring true-crime author with virtually no writing credentials spent nearly six months in jail rather than turn over all of her notes, tapes and other materials to law enforcement authorities. Here's a look at the making of an unlikely martyr for the first Amendment.

On a muggy day in mid-April 1997, Houston police discovered Doris Angleton's bullet-riddled body inside her two-story, red-brick Tudor home. She lay in an upstairs hallway in a pool of blood, shot 12 times in the head and chest.

The homicide would reverberate through the higher echelons of Houston's old-money society. But the effects of Angleton's death would be felt beyond the gilded confines of the River Oaks Chardonnay set.

After a few dead ends, police eventually turned their focus on Doris' husband, Robert Angleton, friend and full-time bookie to Houston's powerful and wealthy. But for years, the case remained unresolved. Robert Angleton's brother Roger said that Robert had hired him to carry out the murder. But Roger apparently committed suicide in jail while awaiting trial. Robert Angleton was acquitted in August 1998.

Shortly thereafter, the feds entered the picture. On January 25 of this year, Robert Angleton was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and murder for hire, as well as a firearms violation.

Beyond the criminal case, the brutal killing of the 46-year-old former model continues to cast an ominous cloud over bow journalists do their jobs.

A wannabe true-crime author who had immersed herself deeply in the case refused to turn over notes, tapes and other confidential source material to a federal grand jury last year and found herself jailed for contempt of court for 168 days. Her incarceration far exceeds the previous record held by William Farr, of the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, whose refusal to name the source of a leak in the Charles Manson murder trial in 1972 earned him 46 days in the Los Angeles County Jail.

And so Vanessa Leggett, 33, has become the centerpiece in a legal battle over when and whether journalists can fend off efforts by law enforcement officials to subpoena their notes and tapes--in this case all of them, and all copies. The case also spotlights the question of just who is a journalist, and who decides.

As a result, Leggett, whose published body of work until recently included just two articles in technical manuals, has become an unlikely symbol of the cause of press freedom in a contretemps that has drawn international attention.

"The freedom of press in America, nothing less than the truth, is at stake here," Leggett declared in an interview in December at the high-rise Federal Detention Center in downtown Houston. "And I'm willing to remain here in support of that principle."

Leggett is variously described as a "top groupie" and a "thorough, no-nonsense" researcher. A legal-writing and English instructor at the University of Houston's downtown campus, she had been researching the Angleton case for three-and-a-half years at the time of her incarceration.

At the time, Leggett's writing credits were limited to two articles, "Parricidal Familicide" and "Prescription for Murder?: Homicide and Suicide Among Pharmacologically Treated Juveniles," published in obscure FBI Behavioral Science Unit manuals. (She has since written an article about her ordeal for Newsweek.) Ironically, lawyers from the Department of Justice--the FBI's parent agency--would argue in court that Leggett is not a journalist and should not have a reporter's privilege under the First Amendment because she had never had any of her works published.

Media experts and First Amendment lawyers say that going after Leggett couldn't have advanced the federal investigation of Angleton because prosecutors for years have had copies of Leggett's most explosive material. Media watchers also fear that the U. S. Attorney in Houston and, by extension, his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, are embarking on a course that can only lead to diminished protection for journalists, particularly freelancers. …

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