Ashcroft at the Lion’s Den

Freelance writer Vanessa Leggett, 33, was jailed July 20, 2001 for contempt of court charges, at the Justice Department’s request, by an unnamed judge in secret proceedings with sealed records, because Leggett declined to turn over tape recordings, notes, and other material she assembled while researching a book on the murder of Doris Angleton, wife of millionaire ex-bookie Robert Angleton, who was acquitted in 1998 of hiring his brother to kill Doris. She could be held for up to 18 months for contempt of court charges, because Texas does not have a “shield law” that allows freelance writers, reporters, and journalists to safeguard research material and confidential sources, and because U.S. officials foster the presumptuous notion that federal protections in place for journalists would not apply to her.

Thankfully they are wrong. “She stands in the same shoes as any television or newspaper reporter,” according to Robert Lystad who is an attorney for the Society of Professional Journalists. “She’s exactly the type of reporter or book author who shouldn’t be harassed into turning over her notes.” Leggett has every right to protect her notes, and it is for the protection of all parties involved that she keep her information private.

As a writer who is presently working on the high-profile open-homicide case of Andy Williams and the Santana High School shooting in Florida, I see government repression at its peak and I shudder to think of climbing that mountain of governmental horsefeathers. This should be the case that causes Texas to place such a law on the books instead of sending total terror though every journalist, writer, and reporter that Attorney General John Ashcroft may, ridiculously, reverse the policy that allows journalists that comforting blanket to protect unpublished information and confidential sources. Ashcroft should be looking for a new job, such as digging graves, because if he does reverse the law there will be a lot of graves that will need to be dug. He can dig his first and save it for last.

U.S. government officials who began investigating Robert Angleton after his acquittal hope to utilize Leggett’s information. Let them do their own investigation. Let them pay their investigators for the years of time put into a proper investigation. They can pay their own peak-minute phone bills across the country, relentless mileage, frustrating air travel, and bummed-out delays, rental cars, lonely hotel stays, and one-hundred-dollar toner cartridges that never last long enough. They can deal with victims’ painful wails and cascading tears — you know the ones you want to put your arms around in solace and still you have to get their story when it’s everything you can do to hold back your own tears.

Putting together the background information on a murder trial is an unselfish service done for mankind. It provides the white-knight officers and other knights and warriors in uniform who protect our country insight into the minds of killers and paves the road for possible recognition of killers and/or of the next potential killer before he scores, hopefully setting him up to get foiled. Coverage of true crime has its place in the realm of protecting the public. At the Southern Police Institute Alumni Association Conference (S.P.I.), which trains police officers for duty, all a journalist has to say is “it is an open homicide case” and all officers present understand that details of the case cannot be discussed. It is implicitly understood that a journalist’s notes are private. His or her e-mails are private. All recordings are private. All information is private. Amazingly, our own Attorney General fails to recognize that Leggett has an inherent right to privacy and protection, including protection from her own government if necessary.

Ashcroft stands outside a lion’s den here. If he is foolhardy enough to think that caging one lion will intimidate the others, let him keep up his Department’s persecution on Vanessa Leggett. Then see how he deals with the entire pride.