Judge orders station to turn over interview tapes with murder suspect

Monday, June 8, 1998

Ruling that a murder suspect's lawyers have proven a “compelling and overriding public interest,” a Montgomery County, Tenn., judge ordered a Nashville television station to turn over hours of taped telephone conversations with the suspect to his attorneys.

While reporter's privilege “is quite restrictive and interpreted narrowly, it is not absolute,” Circuit Court Judge John Gasaway ruled Friday. The judge rejected
arguments by WTVF-TV's attorney that reporter Jennifer Kraus and the station are covered by the state's media shield law, which prohibits courts from forcing anyone who collects information gathered for publication or broadcast to reveal the information or its source, except under certain conditions.

The ruling came in response to a subpoena by multiple-murder suspect Paul Dennis Reid's attorney, Mike Engle, for more than five hours of audiotapes Kraus made during interviews with Reid.

The prosecution is expected to call Kraus to testify about the 11 minutes of tape that the station broadcast last June.

During conversations with Kraus and with The Tennessean, Reid denied any involvement in the murder-robberies that took the lives of five employees at two fast-food restaurants in Nashville in February and March 1997, and two employees at a Baskin-Robbins in Clarksville in April 1997. He also attempted to refute evidence against him, such as his fingerprints being found on a victim's video store ID card.

“Under the circumstances, it's not terribly surprising to see that the court has decided that the state's shield law protection” does not have a bearing, said Richard Hollow, a First Amendment attorney with the Tennessee Press Association.

Hollow said that in most capital punishment cases, the rights of the accused are more amplified.

“The accused are given more latitude in defending themselves because their lives are at stake,” Hollow said. “Extra consideration is given to the rights of the criminally accused facing the death penalty.”

Hollow acknowledged other factors may have influenced Gasaway's ruling including that portions of the tapes were broadcast by the station; the prosecution plans to call the reporter to the stand; the content of the tapes cannot be obtained from another source; and the overriding interest of the people of Tennessee because this is a death penalty case.

“Any measure of success [concerning] shield law issues are very fact specific, and the law and the court decisions under the law are extremely clear,” Hollow said. “But all of these factors are significant and probably had some weight in favor of the defendant's request.”

The station has not yet announced plans to appeal the ruling. Station attorney Ron Harris did not return phone calls.

Hollow said he believes that the station has a good chance to prevail if the case is appealed. “Our appellate courts have been very receptive to the shield law; they believe that the protection should be there.”

An appeal could also delay Reid's trial, which is set to begin July 20.