DENVER (Reuters) - A Fox News reporter returned to a Colorado courtroom on Wednesday for a hearing on whether she should be compelled to reveal anonymous sources cited in a story about the July 2012 massacre of a dozen people in a suburban Denver movie theater.
The outcome of the proceedings were inconclusive, however, and the judge put off a decision on the matter for at least four more months.
New York-based journalist Jana Winter is fighting a subpoena calling for her to testify about her sources for an article that said the accused theater gunman, James Holmes, sent a notebook to a psychiatrist detailing his plans to commit mass murder.
Holmes’ public defenders are demanding that prosecutors be sanctioned for leaks of the information to the media, arguing that whoever provided the information violated a gag order in the case and undermined their client’s right to a fair trial.
Citing two law enforcement sources, the story appeared five days after prosecutors say Holmes opened fire inside an Aurora, Colorado, multiplex during a midnight screening of Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 moviegoers and wounding 58 others.
Holmes, 25, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder. Prosecutors announced last week they will seek the death penalty for the California native if he is convicted.
Winter said in an affidavit that if she were compelled to divulge the names of the sources, her reputation in the industry would be “irreparably tarnished.”
“If I am forced to reveal the identities of persons whom I have promised to shield from public exposure, simply put, I will be unable to function effectively in my profession, and my career will be over,” she wrote.
In a hearing on the issue last week, Winter’s lawyer argued that the court had not exhausted all possible remedies to trace the origin of the leak, short of ordering Winter to testify, a requirement under Colorado’s reporter shield law.
Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour Jr. agreed and ordered Aurora police detective Alton Reed, who previously denied under oath that he was a source of the leak, to take the stand Wednesday and testify as to whether he told anyone about the notebook who may have then leaked its contents.
Reed said he discussed the notebook in general terms with another police officer who was drafting a warrant but did not share information gleaned from his investigation with anyone else. Several other police investigators denied under oath in December that they had leaked information.
After Reed’s testimony, Holmes’ lawyer, Rebecca Higgs, said someone in law enforcement must have lied about not disclosing sealed information and urged the judge to force Winter to disclose her sources.
Winter’s reporting was “not a noble act,” Higgs said, because she knew there was a gag order in place, and Holmes’ right to a fair trial trumps Winter’s free-speech rights.
But Samour, who took over the case last week, said he would not force Winter to testify until and unless the notebook, which is under seal, becomes evidence in the case.
“I need to know whether the notebook will be admitted or not,” he said. “I can’t speculate.”
The judge deferred ruling on the issue and ordered Winter back to court in August.
Prosecutors have not been directly implicated in connection with the leak and have remained largely silent on the matter.
Representatives of the Colorado Press Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Colorado Broadcasters Association have filed affidavits with the court on Winter’s behalf.
The president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Press Club, Angela Greiling Keane, issued a statement calling on the judge to drop the issue.
“If anonymous sources believe their identities can be dredged up in court, they will be less likely to disclose to the press information of vital public importance,” she said.
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Pravin Char