By forcing almost every major media outlet in Santa Barbara to take part in the court proceedings and investigation surrounding the murder of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, Deputy Public Defender Karen Atkins has effectively tainted the coverage of the trial for both the community and her own defendant.
In an effort to defend her client, Atkins used a loose interpretation of the California Shield Law – a law that protects journalists from disclosing their information sources – last week to subpoena over 300 photographs from the Santa Barbara Independent. Atkins requested the photos as evidence for her case involving her client, 14-year-old Ricardo “Ricky” Juarez, who was arraigned last month for allegedly murdering Linares during a gang melee in front of a downtown Saks Fifth Avenue on March 14.
Additionally, Atkins subpoenaed the Santa Barbara News-Press and the Daily Sound in previous months. While both complied with the order, the latter only did so arguing that it could not afford to appeal the decision.
News organizations traditionally decline to take part in legal proceedings so that they can remain objective. Atkins has now set a precedent in the case that will create a chill effect for the rest of the trial. Throughout their coverage, these news organizations will now have to consider the possibility that every note or photo they take may subject them to a subpoena or, worse, jail time for failure to comply with these orders. As such, each news outlet may now feel more hesitant to fully cover these events in the future, possibly even destroying unpublished evidence, which could help in later news reports, so as to avoid any future subpoenas.
Under the state Shield Law, journalists, editors and photographers alike are not required to divulge unpublished material and other sources unless a defendant’s right to a fair trial far outweighs the reporter’s privilege.
According to the California Shield Law, in order to overrule a reporters’ privilege, a court must consider four factors: the confidentiality and sensitivity of the requested content, the possible damage to a news organization’s ability to gather and disseminate information, the value of the evidence to the defendant’s case and the existence of possible alternative sources.
The fact that photographs were taken of the crime scene and not the alleged crime itself – which occurred in a highly public area in broad daylight – has somehow become irrelevant to Atkins. Atkins has a slew of witnesses to choose from who actually witnessed the crime, so why must she invoke this exception? Thus far, it does not seem that the public defender has established anything resembling a prima facie case that would render these photos uniquely relevant to her defense.
Lastly, in light of the various media squabbles that have consumed the community, such as the recent legal dispute between the Independent and the News-Press, as well as the mass of resignations by reporters at the News-Press, Santa Barbara needs to start worrying about the future of its news coverage. Rulings like the one made last week diminish news objectivity and deter skilled journalists from wanting to work in the area, bringing up the question, who are we left with?