Knoxville, Tenn., newspaper battles prior restraint in Zoo Man case

Thursday, April 1, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For nearly seven years, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel has covered the case of Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey, a convicted rapist accused of murdering four prostitutes.

When the News-Sentinel heard last year that thousands of public dollars used for the murder suspect’s defense were going toward expensive restaurant tabs and suits, its editors knew they had an important development in the story.

“There’s nothing wrong with public money being spent. The man is entitled to his defense,” said Tom Chester, an assistant managing editor at the News-Sentinel. “But we felt that … because of the protracted nature of this case — it’s been going on since October 1992 — that the public has a right to know how their money was being spent. We felt an obligation to try to determine if rumors we had heard were true.”

The News-Sentinel expected a battle over the records, but it didn’t think the fight would develop into a major case of prior restraint.

Last Oct. 25, a day before the newspaper planned to run a story detailing defense attorneys’ fees, a state judge ordered the News-Sentinel not to print the story. The newspaper defied the order.

John North, the paper’s court reporter, and Chester detailed the situation for an audience gathered yesterday at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center for a meeting of the Middle Tennessee chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Chester said the case had become extremely important to news organizations in the state because “it’s a classical constitutional issue that has never been decided in Tennessee but should be decided.”

According to North, the paper had learned about possible exorbitant spending by the defense attorneys more than a year ago. But because the judge had ordered the court not to release spending records, the newspaper couldn’t confirm the information.

The newspaper challenged the judge’s order on the spending records. Eventually, the judge agreed to release only the total expenditure, which through 1995 was about $200,000. Huskey’s defense attorneys appealed the release of any records.

In the meantime, North said he obtained the records from an anonymous source.

But when Huskey’s attorneys learned that North had the records, they successfully obtained an order from the judge to prevent the paper from printing the information.

The paper defied the order and ran a story on Oct. 26, 1998, that detailed much of the attorneys’ $200,000 tab. North said the attorneys spent a great deal of money securing expert witnesses and taking them to expensive restaurants. The bill also included a new suit for Huskey.

North said the case has become the most expensive publicly funded death-penalty case in Tennessee history. The bill has increased another $200,000 to cover defense work since 1995 and to pay for the help of one of Knoxville’s top lawyers.

The newspaper is continuing its appeal of the restraining order.

During the lunchtime meeting, Frank Gibson, Tennessee’s SPJ sunshine chair, offered an update on statewide freedom-of-information issues. He paraphrased a joke from renowned White House correspondent Helen Thomas by saying, “I’ve just come from the Legislature; shall we pray.”

Gibson said the current legislative session promised to be the most difficult for Tennessee news organizations concerning FOI issues in many years.

“I’ve been up at the Legislature working on some of these issues for about 14 years now. When I counted the number of bills that close records or have bad implications for the press and the public, I realized that we probably have three times as many up this year as any year in the past.

According to Gibson, the bills include measures that would:

  • Allow victims in a traffic accident to check a box forbidding the release of information to unknown parties. Although it targets telemarketers, Gibson said, it could easily apply to reporters and researchers.
  • Forbid the publishing of directories based on public records unless permission is granted from every person listed.
  • Ban the sale of driver’s license photos.
  • Close personnel files of undercover police officers until two years after they retire.
  • Close most information in the personnel files of state employees. In its original form, the bill would have completely sealed the files of any state employee or elected official. But the version that passed the state Senate last week would close to the public home phone numbers and addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and bank account and driver’s license information for city, county and state employees and anyone in their households.

Gibson noted that a few bills would make more records available such as one that would open records of privately owned prisons and another that would require state universities and colleges to release campus-crime statistics.

Gibson attributed the high number of records-related bills before the Tennessee General Assembly to a “strong sentiment for personal privacy.” He said that the state-employee information bill, in particular, enjoyed the sponsorship of a state senator who was upset that a television station secured information from public files about his wife, a public schoolteacher.