Utah prosecutor, ABC News wrangle over unedited ’20/20′ footage
Peter Evan Halverson and William E. Lyons gave a unique procedure
called trepanation nationwide attention when they demonstrated for television
cameras how drilling a hole in a person’s skull can allegedly relieve pressure
and produce a natural high.
The tape, aired by ABC News’ “20/20″ last spring, caused
quite a stir, particularly in southwestern Utah where the two men live and
reportedly practice their New Age medical techniques.
The demonstration caught the attention of an Iron County prosecutor,
Scott Burns, who learned that neither Halverson nor Lyons had a medical
license. Burns charged them both with practicing medicine without a
But Burns’ key evidence, the “20/20″ story, showed the
surgery with a superimposed, blurry dot over the woman’s head, making it
difficult for viewers to determine if the two men actually drilled into her
Burns said he had to have the raw footage, and now he has a battle on
his hands with one of the nation’s largest broadcasters.
ABC News officials have refused to release the unedited videotape, and
they say they don’t plan to appear in court to turn over the tape or discuss
Elizabeth Schorr, executive counsel for the network, told Burns in a
recent letter that “compelled testimony and enforced disclosure by
journalists of newsgathering … may result in journalists being viewed as
agents of investigation.”
Burns didn’t return calls this week, but in court papers, he said
“an unaltered copy of that telecast is essential to establish the
Preliminary testimony hasn’t helped Burns’ case.
Defense attorneys say the television program only shows a
dramatization of trepanation, and so, they claim, no crime was committed.
Further complicating the case is the alleged victim in the program. Heather
Perry sent a notarized letter from her home in England denying that the two men
had performed the procedure and claiming that she had drilled a hole in her own
Burns told the court that Perry’s claim was bogus. The tape, he said,
would prove his point.
Utah’s 5th District Court in Parawon plans to consider the issue
during an Oct. 2 hearing.
Salt Lake City attorney Robert Anderson of Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall
and McCarthy is representing ABC News in court.
“First Amendment issues are obviously looming large here,”
Anderson said in a telephone interview. “It’s an interesting issue with
lots of ramifications.”
But Anderson declined to explain further, saying the case continues to
Steve Kuhnhausen, attorney for defendant Halverson, also declined to
comment about the case before its resolution.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press, said she was unfamiliar with the case but hoped that ABC
News would stand firm in its refusal to turn the tape over.
Reporters, Dalglish said, must be allowed to act independently to
gather and present news.
“You can’t act independently if you are under pressure to work as
an agent of the government,” she said. “Who’s going to trust you as a
news source if you’re going to turn everything over to the government?