New York, January 4, 2002—After a record-breaking detention of more than five months, free-lance writer Vanessa Leggett this morning walked out of the Texas jail where she was held for refusing to turn over research materials about a high-profile murder case to federal prosecutors.
Leggett, 33, is currently writing a book about the 1997 murder of Houston socialite Doris Angleton. Her research materials include tapes of interviews she conducted with murder suspect Roger Angleton, the victim’s brother-in-law, shortly before he committed suicide.
On July 6, 2001, U.S. District judge Melinda Harmon asked Leggett to turn over her materials to a federal grand jury. When she refused to comply, citing the confidentiality of her sources, Harmon found Leggett in contempt of court and ordered her jailed for the entire period of the grand jury investigation, or 18 months, whichever came first. The journalist turned herself in on July 20. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld Judge Harmon’s ruling on August 17.
The grand jury’s term expired in October but was extended until today. “I’m very grateful to be free. I don’t think anyone realizes how precious freedom is until it’s threatened or taken away from them,” Leggett told CPJ this morning.
Leggett’s lawyer Mike DeGeurin filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on December 31 asking for a review of the appeals court decision. This appeal is important because Leggett could still be summoned as a witness in any future trial related to the Angleton murder. She could also receive another federal grand jury subpoena or face criminal contempt charges.
“CPJ hopes today’s release marks the end of the unjust persecution of Vanessa Leggett,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “The press cannot be free unless journalists are able to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Leggett was clearly investigating a news story for public dissemination and should never have been jailed in the first place.”
Leggett’s release means that Cuba is now the only country in the Western Hemisphere where a journalist is incarcerated for his or her work.