“A picture may be worth 1,000 words,” Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Brian Hill told his courtroom Monday. Hill went on to tell lawyer Michael Cooney, who is representing the Santa Barbara Independent, that the paper’s photographer Paul Wellman must turn over more than 300 photos he took on March 14, 2007 – the day Luis Angel Linares was killed at State and Carrillo Streets – or face contempt of court charges. The Independent will be appealing the decision, according to Cooney and Indy publisher Randy Campbell. Hill told Cooney on Monday that if this was the case, Wellman is to appear in court Thursday, November 29 for contempt proceedings. The proceeding is a prerequisite before an appeal. There is a chance Wellman could be held during the appeal process – which should take around a month – but it is more likely Hill would stay any jail time.
Deputy Public Defender Karen Atkins is defending 14-year-old Ricardo Juarez in the stabbing death of Linares, which occurred during a gang-driven melee. Juarez is being charged as an adult for the crime. Atkins subpoenaed the Independent, along with the Santa Barbara News-Press, for any photos taken that day. But while the Indy refused to submit photos, the News-Press did.
After reading briefs from both sides, the judge indicated that he would stick with an earlier decision he had made against the Daily Sound – that while the roughly 300 unpublished photos come under the scope of the California shield laws, the information wasn’t sensitive or confidential. Therefore, those reporter rights are trumped by the defendant’s rights to defend himself, Hill said. But Campbell differed: “We think the protections provided by California reporters’ privilege laws do not allow the state to turn newspapers into prosecuting agencies on their behalf, and so we are fighting this ruling.”
The Daily Sound found itself in a similar situation this past summer, when Atkins subpoenaed photos taken by Sound photographer, Charles Swegles. The paper resisted, with Cooney serving as its attorney as well, but in order to avoid costly fines, publisher and co-owner Jeramy Gordon eventually turned over the photos. “This is a sad day for journalism and for our rights as Americans,” Gordon said in a statement after handing over the 144 photos taken on March 14. “This newspaper was singled out because Deputy Public Defender Karen Atkins knew we didn’t have the resources to fight her fishing expedition.”
On Monday, Hill defended Atkins’s decision to subpoena the photos. Since Wellman arrived late to the crime scene and stayed later than most of other photographers who were present, his photos might show something the others may have missed, such as police procedure in investigating the murder. “Those photographs might have material significance,” Hill said. “Some of the photos may impeach the manner in which the case proceeded.”
Cooney said Hill’s decision was broad, and an appellate decision would help narrow down and define the law. He said the issue was very important from the freedom of the press standpoint. “The whole issue of the shield law is to protect reporters,” he said. “That’s exactly what’s happening here.”