Trial judge rescinds prior-restraint order against Knoxville, Tenn., paper

Wednesday, June 9, 1999

A Knox County, Tenn., judge this week lifted an 8-month-old order that had prohibited a Knoxville newspaper from publishing details of the expense reports of two lawyers representing an accused serial killer.

But on June 7, only hours after Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner rescinded his injunction, an appeals court judge issued an emergency stay against the Knoxville News-Sentinel, barring it from writing stories about the expense reports “pending further orders of this court.”

Tom Chester, assistant managing editor at the News-Sentinel, said Baumgartner's decision came after he examined the reports firsthand and after a three-week trial that ended in a hung jury.

“He understands that as a practical measure there was no real reason to bar us from printing this,” Chester said. “But even though we won, we lost.”

The new order from Judge James Curwood Witt Jr. places the newspaper back where it started — facing possible court action if it reports further on the costs of defending an accused serial killer.

For more than seven years, the News-Sentinel has covered the case of Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey, a convicted rapist accused of murdering four prostitutes. Two court-appointed lawyers have represented Huskey since 1992, guiding him through two rape trials and an aborted murder trial earlier this year.

When the News-Sentinel learned that thousands of dollars of public money used for Huskey's defense were going to expensive restaurant tabs and toward a new suit for Huskey, it sought the expense reports.

The newspaper ran into numerous obstacles in securing records until an anonymous source gave it a packet containing detailed work documents. The records revealed that Huskey's attorneys had spent more than $250,000, making the case one of the most expensive ever funded by Tennessee taxpayers.

When Huskey's attorneys learned that the News-Sentinel had the records, they successfully obtained an order from Baumgartner to halt publication.

The paper defied the order and ran a story last year detailing the expenditures. Since then, the paper has complied with the order while it sought an appeal.

But when Huskey's trial ended Feb. 13, the newspaper stepped up its argument that most of the information Baumgartner deemed confidential had already become public.

In his June 7 order, Baumgartner agreed that much of the information was no longer secret. After examining the fee records, he wrote that most of the entries contained “harmless” or “generic” information about the attorneys' work for their client.

But the judge also wrote that the lifting of the first restraining order wouldn't give the newspaper license to print information it might obtain from future confidential fee records.

Nathan Rowell, attorney for the News-Sentinel, said the paper plans to wait a few days for an official order from Witt before again asking the court to rescind the prior restraint.

Despite the remaining part of Baumgartner's order and Witt's subsequent stay, News-Sentinel editors say they don't need to move quickly because they've already written about most of the things forbidden by the original order.

“Obviously, if we got another source to offer us the new fee records, we'd pursue it just as any journalist would,” Chester said. “We wouldn't hesitate to weigh it again and wade into it with a new story.”