Magazine article Editor & Publisher

DA Subpoenas Newspapers

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

DA Subpoenas Newspapers

Article excerpt

Texas papers try to side-step order for King's letters

The Dallas Morning News and The Jasper (Texas) NewsBoy have been ordered to turn over correspondence they received from a murder defendant charged with killing a black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck last summer.

Lee Hancock, a reporter for the Morning News and Michael Journee, managing editor of the NewsBoy, a twice-weekly newspaper, received letters from John William King, who is on trial in a Jasper County courtroom for the murder of James Byrd Jr.

The two reporters have covered the story, which has gained national attention, since it broke last year and are now covering King's trial. King, along with two others, are accused of murdering Byrd. All three are being tried separately.

Jasper County District attorney Guy James Gray issued two subpoenas in late January.

But steps have already been taken to sidestep the need for having the news reporters testify about the correspondence. Early last week, the NewsBoy submitted an affidavit and the original copy of the King letter to prosecutors. The affidavit affirms the authenticity of the document and verifies its completeness. The Morning News decided to post the King letters to its Web site.

In the case of the NewsBoy, Journee may not be required to testify, at least during the verdict phase of the trial but may have to testify later during any penalty phase.

For the News, posting the King letters online is one way to preempt the prosecution, by arguing that the letters are already in the public domain.

News city editor Stuart Wilk says that while the sought-after letters have been posted online, no final decision has been made in how to officially respond to the subpoena.

"We are still discussing things with our lawyers, but I can say that this seems to be a trend in Texas, that more prosecutors are sending subpoenas to reporters in criminal cases because of court decisions in this state that have seemed to weaken a reporter's claim to privilege," says Wilk.

He says Hancock got the letters after King dictated a statement to his father, which was then typed up by his father and given to Hancock, along with a handwritten letter from King.

"The contents of the statement that the father had typed up was the basis of a news story. The correspondence that was directly to Lee from John King really had no substantial contents. It's just kind of peripheral in its significance," says Wilk.

Paul Wader, a Dallas attorney who is representing the News, says the prosecution may believe there is some information in one of the letters to Hancock that places him at the scene when the crime was committed. …

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