Pleading the First: A journalist avoids testifying about reporting tactics

Jul 22, 2008 at 9:20 pm

A Courier-Journal reporter who obtained sealed documents detailing the mental health of an accused murderer will not have to testify, but the judge who quashed the subpoena believes there are other means of uncovering the source of the leak. 

In sparing reporter Jason Riley from taking the stand last Thursday, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Mary Shaw said the First Amendment protects journalists from revealing their sources. But the judge made it clear she believes there’s “another way” to find out how the reporter gained access to the sealed court records.

Although Shaw did not elaborate on how she might proceed, officials with the Office of the Circuit Court Clerk — which maintains court files — are deferring to the judge to solve the mystery of how copies of a sealed file got into the hands of a reporter.

“We are going to let the court find out what exactly happened and what the facts are,” says Ronnie Harris, chief of staff for the clerk’s office. “I think the court will decide how far it needs to go.”

The controversy over the sealed documents erupted after The Courier-Journal published a story on July 8 detailing past psychiatric treatment sought by Gail Coontz, an Okolona woman accused of fatally shooting her two children in March.

The article, written by Riley, includes several shocking revelations gleaned from sealed records. Perhaps most startling were details of a call Coontz made to a crisis hotline in 2007 in which she reportedly threatened to kill her 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter and then commit suicide. 

“A woman who might be on trial for her life has been extremely prejudiced,” Mike Lemke, the public defender representing Coontz, said during last week’s hearing. The lawyer had sought to question Riley at the hearing, but the judge sided with The Courier-Journal, quashing the subpoena. 

“I suppose we could stop our work on the case and rip through the clerk’s office and start questioning people,” Lemke tells LEO Weekly when asked whether his office plans to further investigate how the records were released. “But we have little interest in doing that because we have enough to do.”

Even if court officials manage to uncover who is responsible for releasing the information, Lemke believes The Courier-Journal deserves the brunt of the blame, rather than some low-level staffer in the clerk’s office.

“They don’t think court orders apply to them,” Lemke says of the newspaper, calling it an institution that “sees itself as above the law.” As for how the reporter might have obtained the documents, the public defender says, “My supposition is he went and found somebody who was in the copy department or somebody who just didn’t know any better.”

Arguing that the reporter acted “illegally” and “unethically,” Lemke stopped short of asking the court to hold Riley in contempt for violating a court order sealing certain information.

Without directly accusing Riley or the paper of wrongdoing, the prosecutor echoed some of the defense’s concerns, including the fact that someone ignored the court order. 

“It is very disturbing when court orders are violated and we urge the court to get to the bottom of it,” said Dorislee Gilbert, assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

It’s clear that Riley knew the records were sealed before writing his story, according to Shaw. A member of the judge’s staff testified that she heard the judge tell the reporter as much when he visited chambers the day before the story was published.

But even if the reporter did know the records were under seal, that doesn’t mean he should be held in contempt, according to Lisa DeJaco, a local First Amendment lawyer not directly involved in this case.

“There’s nothing wrong with the reporter publishing sealed documents,” says DeJaco, an attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs. “The misconduct is on the part of the person who gave the reporter sealed documents.”

For now, Riley says he’ll have to refrain from commenting at the urging of Jon Fleischaker, The Courier-Journal’s attorney.

Following a victory inside the courtroom last week, Fleischaker defended the journalist, saying he did nothing wrong and in fact acted in the highest tradition of the press in seeking information the court had sealed without merit. 

As for whether his client will return all copies of the sealed documents, Fleischaker told the judge flatly during the hearing, “We are not going to give the records back.” After repeatedly arguing that the documents should not have been sealed in the first place, the attorney agreed to recommend that The Courier-Journal not print anything from the file that has not already been released — at least for now.

A hearing to discuss whether the file should remain sealed, and what the newspaper should do with the documents in question, is scheduled for Aug. 29.

In the meantime, The Courier-Journal has agreed to hold off publishing additional information from the sealed file, but public defender Mike Lemke is not convinced: “At this point, I’m finding it hard to have a lot of trust in them.”