Vanessa Leggett

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

Leggett, a Houston-based freelancer, was jailed without bail after refusing to hand over research for a book she was writing about the 1997 murder of Houston socialite Doris Angleton. Leggett, who is believed to have served in prison longer than any journalist in U.S. history, was released on January 4.

The journalist, 33, was asked to give her research materials to a federal grand jury. These materials include tapes of interviews she conducted with murder suspect Roger Angleton, the victim’s brother-in-law, shortly before he committed suicide.

Since the Watergate era, federal prosecutors have needed permission from the U.S. attorney general before ordering a journalist to reveal his or her sources. The last federal jailing of journalists was in 1991, when four journalists were briefly detained for refusing to testify in a corruption trial.

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker was quoted in the fall issue of The News Media & The Law as saying, “She was not handled as a member of the media, so [the department] would not have followed the procedure that we have laid out for subpoenas of members of the media.”

Leggett, who was clearly investigating a news story for public dissemination, refused to comply with the subpoena, citing confidentiality of her sources. In a closed hearing on July 19, District Judge Melinda Harmon found Leggett in contempt of court and gave her a one-day grace period to surrender to authorities. Leggett turned herself in on July 20.

Leggett’s lawyer, Mike DeGeurin, filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit asking that bail be granted immediately and that the appeal be handled in an expedited manner. The court refused bail but granted the request for an expedited appeal hearing, which was held on August 15.

The Appeals Court denied requests by news organizations to argue on Leggett’s behalf during the hearing. Initially, the court had closed the hearing to the public, but after the news organizations filed an emergency motion, the courtroom was opened on August 14.

During the August 15 hearing before a three-judge panel, Justice Department attorney Paula Offenhauser acknowledged, under questioning, that prosecutors were not sure what they were after.

But on August 17, the panel of the Appeals Court upheld Judge Harmon’s ruling, saying, “The district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Leggett incarcerated for contempt.” DeGeurin told CPJ that the Appeals Court panel assumed Leggett to be a journalist but contended that reporter’s privilege carries less weight in a federal grand jury investigation.

DeGeurin appealed to the full court, but his request for a rehearing was denied in November. The Appeals Court also denied DeGeurin’s motion to release Leggett during the appeals process.

DeGeurin then 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.

Leggett was released on January 4, 2002, the day the grand jury’s term expired. “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 shortly after her release.

The appeal before the Supreme Court, however, remained important because Leggett could still be summoned as a witness in any future trial related to the Angleton murder. She could also face criminal contempt charges.
At press time, the Supreme Court was still reviewing the case.