Clarification: The following article originally stated that Paul Wellman was late to the court proceedings. He was on time, but rather, he was late to the alleged crime scene when he took his photos. The Nexus regrets this error.
Santa Barbara Independent photographer Paul Wellman appeared before court yesterday after refusing to turn over subpoenaed photographs in conjunction with a murder trial.
Currently, Deputy Public Defender Karen Atkins is representing Ricardo “Ricky” Juarez, a 14-year-old who allegedly stabbed and killed Luis Angel Linares, 15, in a gang altercation in front of the downtown Saks Fifth Avenue on State Street on March 14. Atkins has subsequently subpoenaed photos taken of the alleged crime scene from the Independent, the Santa Barbara New-Press and the Daily Sound.
The News-Press and the Daily Sound turned over the photos, but the Independent declined, claiming that journalists were protected from providing unpublished material under California’s Shield Law.
Wellman appeared in court yesterday afternoon for the contempt proceedings. He was holding a yellow envelope containing seven published photos of the crime scene and said those were the only photos he was willing to turn over to Atkins. Wellman refused to produce the other unpublished photographs to the defense. The main contempt proceedings were postponed, but Judge Brian Hill did impose a $1,000 fine on Wellman and did not rule out future jail time.
Under the California Shield Law, media are not required to give up unpublished material unless a defendant’s right to a fair trial far outweighs the reporter’s privilege. Additionally, courts consider the confidentiality and sensitivity of the requested material possible harms to a news organization’s ability to gather news and the availability of the evidence from other sources.
Judge Hill said that the photographs could contain evidence that may assist the defense with the murder trial.
Independent Publisher Randy Campbell said that this ruling could set a negative precedent in journalism. He said the ruling has the potential to inhibit coverage of stories because the media would become afraid of possible subpoenas for other news articles in the future.
“It will create a chilling effect for newspapers,’ Campbell said. “It will make us not want to cover it, there’s a precedent that I think should not be set.”
Mark Saatjian, Deputy Public Defender speaking on behalf of Atkins, said that the lawyer does realize that journalists have privileges protected by the shield laws, but emphasized that the information obtained in the photographs could prove useful when constructing the defense for her client.
“It’s true the defendant and Miss Atkins recognize the importance of journalists being able to keep their confidential information to themselves, but we need them if there’s a reasonable possibility they could be material to the defense,” Saatjian said.
Campbell said he does not believe Atkins is going to find anything that will help in the trial. Since the photographer was late to the crime scene, Campbell said none of the photos Wellman took would be any different than photographs already obtained from the two other papers that were subpoenaed.
“She’s looking for a silver bullet to exonerate her client, but Paul was an hour later than the other reporters, so there’s probably nothing Paul shot that will prove anything,” Campbell said.