Attorneys for the Santa Barbara Independent filed legal papers with the California Court of Appeal arguing that Judge Brian Hill erred in finding the weekly paper in contempt of court for refusing to turn over all the photographs taken by Independent photographer Paul Wellman of the downtown crime scene last March shortly after 15-year old Angel Linares was stabled to death on State Street in a gang-related rumble.
Instigating the legal show down is Karen Atkins, the senior Public Defender representing 14-year old Ricardo Juarez, who is accused of killing Linares. Juarez has been charged as an adult, meaning he’d be sentenced to life imprisonment if found guilty. Atkins is seeking any evidence that might exonerate her client, and has secured hundreds of photographs from the Santa Barbara Daily Sound and the Santa Barbara News-Press. (The Sound initially refused Atkins’ demand but abandoned the legal fight when Hill ruled the California Shield law did not apply, due to lack of funds; the News-Press willingly turned over its photo archives on the case when asked.)
The Independent‘s attorneys argued Atkins failed to provide any evidence there was “a reasonable possibility”-not merely a theoretical possibility-that Wellman’s unpublished photographs “will materially assist” in Juarez’s defense.The legal standard required by California Constitution to penetrate California’s journalistic shield law, which protects newspapers from prosecutors and defense attorneys seeking to utilize the unpublished material collected by news organizations for their own benefit, requires a reasonable possibility.
Like many such organizations in the past, the Independent is resisting efforts to open its unpublished materials to official scrutiny out of concern that its reporters and photographers will come to be regarded by potential sources-willing or otherwise-for governmental agencies. At the very least, news agencies have argued, that could compromise their ability to gather news; at the worst, it could put their employees in physical danger.
Atkins said little during the hearing, with Judge Hill presenting most of the arguments in favor of his final conclusion that the Shield law should not block the Public Defender’s subpoena. Hill-who found the Independent in contempt on November 29 after Wellman refused a court order to turn over the photographs-argued that without seeing the photographs first, it would be all but impossible to say how and why it might materially assist the defense. Atkins has since received a few hundred photographs from the News-Press and the Daily Sound. She said that many of those photographs have provided “significant” information that might prove helpful in crafting a defense for Juarez. She declined, however, to elaborate how. “But I could not possibly have said in advance how those photographs would have helped,” she said.
Atkins stressed that she has the greatest respect for freedom of the press and the First Amendment, notwithstanding political cartoons that appeared in UCSB’s Daily Nexus to the contrary. (The Nexus ran a staff editorial with an accompanying cartoon depicting Atkins as a shark. “If there’s evidence out there that will help my client, I have a constitutional duty and obligation to find it,” she said.
In the meantime, Atkins has filed legal briefs challenging the outcome of Juarez’s preliminary hearing this summer. Hill ruled that there was sufficient evidence provided at the prelim to remand the case over to a jury trial. Atkins has argued that Linares was stabbed multiple times by multiple parties; even if Juarez was one of the stabbers, she maintains someone else delivered the fatal blow.
No date has been set to review Wellman’s contempt citation pending the appeal. The clerk of the Appeals Court located in Ventura says Public Defender Atkins has until December 27 to submit opposition to The Independent’s appeal.